Pamela Zeinoun does not remember seeing the photographer who made her an accidental hero in August when he captured the nurse in a wrecked Beirut hospital moments after a massive explosion tore through the building. The image shows Zeinoun — phone wedged between ear and shoulder, dust coating her long hair — holding three tiny babies and looking into the camera with preternatural serenity.
Inside “I was panicking”, she says. Amid the havoc of bleeding medics and patients, the 26-year-old had extracted the premature babies from smashed incubators and was desperately trying to keep them alive.
In the chaotic hours after the blast, Beirutis learnt that neglected explosive chemicals had blown up their city. Social media flashed up images of the giant pink mushroom cloud, missing-person notices and murder accusations against corrupt Lebanese politicians.
A stash of ammonium nitrate had been left in the Port of Beirut for six years and, through a series of tragic coincidences and chronic mismanagement, exploded. Although an official investigation into the blast’s cause has offered no answers, its costs are clear — nearly 200 people killed, thousands wounded and $4bn in physical damage, according to the World Bank. Officials right up to the president had been alerted to the possible danger — but had done nothing to prevent disaster. Facing an eruption of public rage, the government stood down in August.
Outside, deafening winter storms are here, triggering flashbacks of the blast. Zeinoun says loud noises now frighten her.
On August 4, the premature babies of Saint George slept, protected by incubators. It had just gone 6pm and Zeinoun’s shift was due to finish in 90 minutes; she was calling her mother to remind her to pick her up. Then she heard a boom, everything went dark and disaster swallowed the hospital.
“I felt a huge blow and I fell” — a ceiling panel hit Zeinoun’s head but she stayed conscious. A terrorist attack, she thought. Surely, a second explosion was coming. “The babies,” she thought, “where are the babies?”
Hands cut by broken glass, Zeinoun freed herself and fought through the collapsed office towards the incubators. She stumbled on two nurses so drenched in blood that the blue of their scrubs could not be seen. One was eight months pregnant. Witnessing what had happened to adults, Zeinoun “was afraid that when I uncovered [the incubators] . . . I would see red”.
A visiting father helped her lift debris, “work[ing] very fast because we thought that another [explosion] will happen”. Underneath, the Plexiglas incubators were broken but somehow all five premature babies were unharmed.
Zeinoun carefully pulled out feeding tubes and sensors, before picking up twins and another jaundiced baby. Together they weighed just 4.5kg. If the babies, wearing nothing but nappies, got cold, Zeinoun knew they would die.
Cradling the bundle, Zeinoun, a doctor and the visiting parents clambered through corridors blocked with blown-out doors. The electricity was out and the hospital echoed with screams. The group separated in the black stairwell. Then light revealed pandemonium.
On the ground floor, Zeinoun saw “nurses rushing, and doctors, and patients holding their IVs”, some being evacuated on the fallen metal ceiling panels. Outside, “everything was grey because of the dust, and I could see a lot of red, red spots” — people bleeding.
No one stopped to help a nurse with three tiny babies. “God help you,” people outside told her. Alone, unable to contact the head nurse or her mother, Zeinoun hyperventilated; her legs gave way. She told herself: “It’s not time to panic and it’s not time to cry.” She caught her breath, checked the silent babies were still pink and began walking.
Zeinoun assumed only Saint George was destroyed. But searching for another hospital alongside a gynaecologist, she discovered mile after mile of devastation. “Balconies were falling, I could hear glass underneath my shoes, I could see people running, panicking,” she says. She wanted to find somewhere that wasn’t in ruins, but all was wreckage.
The first hospital turned them away — and the second. It took 90 minutes to reach a third, 5km away and heaving with injured people. Zeinoun pleaded with a nun on the nursing staff. There was one spare incubator, the sister told her: “See what you can do.” After nearly two hours, Zeinoun could put the babies back into an incubator, none the worse for their experience.
She did not sleep that night or the next day, returning to Saint George to help clean it up and becoming a national hero. A whirlwind of extraordinary media attention interspersed with her work shifts followed. Zeinoun lost about 10kg.
Four months on, there are new babies back in Saint George. Staff are still processing what happened: “We talk about the blast every day,” Zeinoun says. The hospital, which is still at far from full strength, has provided psychological consultations for staff. Zeinoun says that telling her story over and over, as well as the outpouring of public gratitude, has been a comfort. She speaks to the parents of the babies she rescued daily.
She insists that every nurse was an angel that night: “Maybe I’m lucky . . . People know my story. But there are a lot of stories.”