Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on November 1, 2021.

‘City in a Coma’
More than a year after a catastrophic explosion rocked an already-fragile Beirut, the city struggles to rebuild as an economic crisis threatens to paralyze the nation of Lebanon. A fire and life safety expert—and Beirut resident—talks about life in the city, her work, and the challenges of maintaining a safety culture in an urban society on the brink of collapse.


Sawsan Dahham was just opening the door to her Beirut apartment when the explosion hit. It was a few minutes after 6 p.m. on August 4, 2020, and as she entered the apartment she felt the floor begin to move beneath her. For a moment she thought it might be an earthquake, but then the force of the blast hit the building in a cacophony of shattering glass and toppling furniture. Then there was screaming, and people crying out that they feared the city was under attack. But there were no more blasts, and within minutes media reports began to emerge that there had been a massive explosion in the city’s port. Television images showed dead and wounded people on the streets and widespread devastation throughout the city. “I was heartbroken and afraid,” Sawsan said of her immediate response. “I couldn’t sleep for many nights. All I could think about was that I and everyone I love were nothing but lucky survivors.”

RELATED: Explore a digital recreation of the August 2020 Beirut explosion

Sawsan is head of fire and life safety for Dar Al-Handasah, an international engineering, architecture, and planning firm based in Beirut. Her professional expertise means she has a keen understanding of how the disaster unfolded, its devastating impact, and the challenges the city faces in its recovery. A fire at a warehouse in the city’s port, the result of unregulated hot work, had ignited a large store of ammonium nitrate: approximately 2,750 metric tons, or more than 6 million pounds, of the chemical had been improperly stored there since 2014. Ammonium nitrate can be highly combustible in certain conditions when exposed to fire, and the blaze in the warehouse, which also contained fireworks, triggered a series of explosions. The final cataclysmic blast was heard 200 miles away and was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

RELATED VIDEO Watch a video by NFPA Journal about the Beirut explosion

The explosion pulverized much of the busy port, obliterating buildings, docks, vessels, containers, vehicles, workers, and the firefighters who had responded to the warehouse fire. The close proximity of residential neighborhoods and commercial districts to the port area meant that the heart of Beirut took the full force of the blast, destroying buildings up to two miles away. Sawsan’s home is located in the Verdun neighborhood, not quite three miles (five kilometers) from the site of the explosion; the blast sheared off the wall of a balcony that Sawsan had converted as part of her bedroom, sending it plummeting to the street below. For days, all that remained of the bedroom’s exterior wall was a ragged opening that offered a view of a decimated city reeling from an unprecedented disaster. “We were lucky in a way that the explosion happened later in the day—if it had happened earlier, when people were at work, we might have had 10 times the fatalities,” Sawsan said. “If I’d been sitting at my desk at Dar, or if I’d been out somewhere in the city, I would probably be dead.” More than 200 people were killed in the event, an estimated 7,000 were injured, and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Roughly 300,000 residents were left homeless. Property damage was estimated at $15 billion.

It didn’t help that Lebanon was already in the throes of another historic calamity. In 2019, the country’s currency collapsed, the result of decades of government borrowing—and of widely reported government mismanagement and corruption—that began in the early 1990s following Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that left much of the country in ruins. The economic collapse rendered the Lebanese pound virtually worthless, and skyrocketing prices mean that essentials like food, fuel, and medication are increasingly out of reach for much of the population. Electricity is typically available only several hours each day, if that. Thousands have been plunged into poverty while the professional classes flee for other cities in the Middle East and Europe.

Against that backdrop, Beirut has slowly begun to rebuild, a process Sawsan has observed up close from her position at Dar. A native of Beirut, Sawsan joined Dar 15 years ago as an architect and now heads all fire and life safety efforts for the company’s operations across the Middle East and North Africa. Her work focuses on a variety of large-scale occupancies including airports, stadiums, shopping malls, universities, palaces, and residential developments. An ongoing Dar project is the expansion of the Grand Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, an assignment Sawsan described as a “one-of-a-kind experience for a life-safety strategy designer.”

While such projects are showcased by cities throughout the region as examples of their growing prominence on the world stage, Beirut—once a cosmopolitan financial center known as “the Paris of the Middle East”—struggles to put itself back together against fears that Lebanon is on its way to becoming a failed state. “It breaks our hearts what is happening to our city,” Sawsan said. “We are no longer living in the city that we know and love. We don’t know it anymore.”

NFPA Journal recently spoke with Sawsan about life in Beirut, her work, and the challenges of maintaining a safety culture in an urban society on the brink of collapse.

What is Beirut like these days?

It is dark and dull. People are mostly down and frustrated. It is like we are living in a nightmare. Lots of basic necessities are unavailable. If I need my medication, I have to get it from people who I know are coming from abroad.

How does the local economy work?

If you have money, if you have access to US dollars, Beirut can seem like a place you want to visit. The restaurants and nightclubs are lit up, they have good food, and the hotels have power. What is going on with that? This is what a foreigner or tourist will see. For most of the people who live here, our homes are the dark ones. The banks have frozen our money. The truth is, for us it’s as if the city is in a coma.  

Sawsan Dahham in the heavily damaged headquarters of Electricité du Liban, the state-run electrical com-pany, with a view of the stricken port beyond. Sawsan’s employer, Dar Al-Handasah, conducted a survey of the building following the explosion, but the government has yet to take steps to repair it.  Image courtesy of Dar Al-Handasah

How much of this do you attribute to government mismanagement?

The issue is not with the government only—government changes a lot in Lebanon. The issue is with mismanagement throughout the entire political system.

Can the situation improve anytime soon?

I really hope so, though it’s not an easy mission. But nothing is impossible with the right steps. Every country has corruption, but I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in Lebanon. If you don’t have an effective system to control the corruption, you allow all the corrupt people in Lebanon to control us, whether it’s fuel or medicine or food. Sometimes there’s no fuel for four or five days. How do I get to work if I can’t drive my car? So you think about ways to optimize, and you decide to work from home. But how do I work from home if there’s no electricity?

What was the government response to the explosion?

The government resigned, yes, but nobody has been condemned yet, nobody has been held responsible. This catastrophe didn’t just happen overnight—many people knew what was stored in that warehouse, and they all knew the risk. Still, the fire was allowed to go on for more than 40 minutes. No precautions were taken to warn people or to stop traffic along the busy road that runs next to the port. Many people died in their cars near the site of the explosion. Firefighters were sent to the fire with no idea of the consequences.

What does the political situation mean for rebuilding?

Much of it is happening on a personal level. If I own a building and want to repair it, then I do it myself with my own money, or with money donated for institutional buildings either by wealthy Lebanese abroad or by other countries who want to see Lebanon rise again. It was residents who cleaned up the city after the explosion—students, social workers, children, citizens like me who want to see their beautiful city shine again.

What about on a larger scale—the rebuilding of institutions like schools, hospitals, and civic infrastructure?

There is a lot going on. Dar was among the first companies that offered its services to the government to survey the damage and suggest what should be done. Our structural engineer specialists, façade specialists, and architects went out in an official mission to survey the buildings that are in danger. Dar worked hard to support the effort to rebuild Beirut quickly.

How does the implementation of fire and life safety requirements work in Lebanon?

When you want to build or improve a building and you want to conform to fire and life safety requirements, you have to hire a government-authorized fire and life safety office to do that. The office reviews your design to see if it meets the code requirements, it follows the construction process to make sure that the approved drawings are reflected in the actual building, and at the end they give you the certificate of completion.

What is the role of fire and life safety codes in the country?

The country doesn’t have a sophisticated, self-sufficient code of its own—it’s more of a recommendation. The codes you have to follow are mainly from France or from NFPA—the client has to choose. For high-rise buildings, we always follow NFPA. A few years ago, I worked on a hospital project, and I made sure the client followed NFPA for that building because of the project’s complexity. Generally, when I’m working on a project in Lebanon, I try my best to implement NFPA because it always offers more flexibility to cover more options in architectural designs.

In the absence of a cohesive government response to the explosion, Beirut residents took it upon themselves to organize the cleanup of the city, which included removing tons of shattered glass.  GETTY IMAGES 

How would you describe the fire and life safety culture in the country?

I would say the problem isn’t in implementing codes. I know that when it comes to a rebuild, for example, the companies doing that work follow the codes. It’s during the inspections where things need to improve.

Enforcement is so critical, but it’s often a neglected aspect of the safety equation. Is anyone taking steps to improve code enforcement and the safety culture in Lebanon?

Not at the moment. I hope something like this will happen. If something does happen in the future, I would definitely be involved in it because of the work I do for Dar, one of the Middle East’s best-known consulting companies in this field. But now is not the time for such an initiative because of all the events that are happening in the country that might be regarded as more serious. People will take you lightly. People are in way over their heads on so many problems, and fire safety just isn’t currently on many people’s to-do lists.

Besides the Mecca expansion, what are some of the other large projects you’ve been involved with?

For example, I worked on the expansion of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and I’m currently working on the expansion of Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. I worked on a large residential development called Gewan Island, in Doha—it was like building a city from scratch, with a lot of residential towers and hotels. I also worked on an expansion of Hamad General Hospital in Doha, and on a new iconic high-rise hotel called Katara Towers. A lot of work is taking place in Doha in advance of the soccer world cup that Qatar is hosting in 2022.

Are there common life safety challenges you face as you go from project to project?

In the Middle East, especially with mixed-use developments that involve multiple occupancies, I always have challenges—there’s always a unique design that you need to be sensitive to with fire and life safety requirements because you don’t want to ruin the vision that the client has for his exceptional project. At the same time, I have to respect the adopted code requirements and make sure that the design is also in line with the additional safety measures set by the authorities, and those can differ depending on whether I’m designing in Doha or Dubai or Riyadh. I need to mix and match between clients, authorities, codes, and Dar perspectives of the project, and figure out how to deliver the safest design possible while trying to make everyone happy. Every fire and life safety strategy I design enriches my knowledge.

Do you want to stay in Beirut?

I hope so. But this is a very hard choice for people who really want to stay, because it is not easy to live here right now with the way things are. I have had many opportunities to leave, with my expertise, but it’s a hard decision. I travel a lot around the Middle East, and when I see the amount of change taking place in those societies, and of the implementation of safety and security, of codes and requirements, I think, “What happened to us?” We were the best city in the region and now it’s like we are far behind, and it’s not in our hands. 

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images