Three Beirut firefighters — all from the same family and best friends — are still missing and presumed dead after responding to last week’s catastrophic explosion at the city’s port.
Grieving relatives admit that the chances of the trio being alive are slim to zero and have unfurled a banner to their “heroes’’ on a stone wall outside the family compound in the nearby Lebanese mountain town of Qartaba — saying that now, they just want to recover their bodies.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” Rita Hitti — whose son Najib Hitti, 27, is one of the missing men— told Agence France-Presse.
Najib and his cousin, Charbel Hitti, 22, were in the same fire truck as it raced toward the scene of a blaze that started in a port warehouse Aug. 4, the Washington Post said. Najib’s uncle, Charbel Karam, 37, hopped in an ambulance that was headed there, too.
All three men grew up together and were so close that they made sure they worked the same shifts, kin said.
Karam playfully Face-timed his 2-year-old daughter on the way to what the emergency responders thought was a routine call, telling her, “We’re firefighters! We’re going to put out a fire,’’ the Washington Post said.
But by the time the firefighters got to the scene, the mood had changed.
Screams of “Yallah! Yallah! Yallah! Yallah!” — Arabic for, “Let’s go! Hurry up!” — erupted, and Charbel Hitti turned to another firefighter and said he was worried.
Seconds later came a devastating explosion — caused by the ignition of 2,750 tons of highly volatile fertilizer that leveled a large swath of the city, bringing down buildings and burying dozens of people in rubble, killing at least 220, with dozens still missing and 6,000 injured.
Rita Hitti told AFP that she and other family members rushed to the scene after the explosion to look for their loved ones, only to be turned back by security.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said.
“ ‘Let me enter to search for them, and when I whiff their smell, I will know where they are,’ ” she said she pleaded with a guard, to no avail.
The tribute banner hanging outside the family’s home has the missing related trio standing together dressed in tuxedos and bow ties —with a massive plume of smoke and three rescue workers at the explosion scene as their backdrop.
The family’s grief is mixed with anger, as accusations of government corruption and negligence over the incident have fueled widespread violent protests across Lebanon.
The country’s prime minister and his entire cabinet resigned amid the furor by Monday.
“We gave them heroes, and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs,’ ” Rita Hitti scoffed to AFP, furious at officials’ use of the term “martyrs’’ for rescue-worker victims.
She said her loved ones are only “martyrs of treachery.’’
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