Beirut Barracks Bombing – October 23, 1983

This morning I headed to the US Embassy for my first visit since arriving in Lebanon more than two years ago. Passport renewal time.

I had a 9am appointment, but arrived plenty early. In Lebanon you never know what kind of traffic you might face, and at any American embassy you never know what kind of line might be waiting. I was lucky that I didn’t meet either.

While waiting for my turn, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that there would be a minute of silence observed at 9am, in memory of those who died at the attack on the US Marines Barracks on this date in 1983.

Marine Barracks, Beirut 1982. Photo Credit: James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A.

According to Wikipedia, “At around 06:22, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck drove to the Beirut International Airport (BIA), where the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was deployed. The 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, was a subordinate element of the 24th MAU. The truck was not the water truck they had been expecting. Instead, it was a hijacked truck carrying explosives. The driver turned his truck onto an access road leading to the compound. He drove into and circled the parking lot, and then he accelerated to crash through a 5-foot-high barrier of concertina wire separating the parking lot from the building. The wire popped “like somebody walking on twigs.” The truck then passed between two sentry posts and through an open vehicle gate in the perimeter chain-link fence, crashed through a guard shack in front of the building and smashed into the lobby of the building serving as the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT). The sentries at the gate were operating under rules of engagement which made it very difficult to respond quickly to the truck. Sentries were ordered to keep their weapons at condition four (no magazine inserted and no rounds in the chamber). Only one sentry, LCpl Eddie DiFranco, was able to load and chamber a round. However, by that time the truck was already crashing into the building’s entryway.”

Debris marks the site of the Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks building that was destroyed in a terrorist bomb attack. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

An aerial view of the remains of the Marine battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks at Beirut International Airport. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

241 servicemen were killed – 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers – making the incident the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II.

An elderly Lebanese man nearby was killed by the explosion as well.

The attack was followed by one the French barracks ten minutes later, killing 58 French paratroopers.

No need to wait for Memorial Day to come around again in order to remember those who lost their lives on this day 31 years ago.

At 9am sharp, a few servicemen were lined up in formation before the embassy flags, flying at half-mast. The entire embassy compound fell silent.

Marines, sailors and soldiers, I remembered you today.

Biking in Beirut

Over a recent coffee with two Lebanese friends, I discovered that neither of their daughters, ages 8 and 9, know how to ride a bike.

It seemed surprising, until you think about the lack of public spaces in this concrete jungle. Narrow sidewalks are overtaken by parked cars when they aren’t full of people, and streets are equally narrow and clogged with traffic. There isn’t much place to take a bike ride in Beirut.

The exception is the waterfront. At the famed Corniche, bikes are best ridden at off-peak times, when you don’t risk running down any of the hundreds of men, women and children that love to take a morning/afternoon/evening stroll along the boardwalk that lines the seafront. A better choice for an easy bike ride in Beirut is at the bland but uncrowded waterfront at BIEL. The company Beirut by Bike noticed that too, and have set up shop with hundreds of bikes for rent.

But what about those girls who haven’t learned how to ride a bike? Do they have to miss out on the fun?

Cleverly, Beirut by Bike’s stock of rentals isn’t limited to two-wheelers. Tricycles are as popular with adults as they are with kids, and BbB stocks the trikes in a variety of sizes.

While there a couple of other bike rental shops around town, BbB is single-handedly managing to change the conception of biking in Beirut. They sponsor night bikes on Friday evenings. Hosted a 13km bike-a-thon on October 5 with 1,650 participants. This Saturday (the 18th), BbB is the sponsor of a fundraiser for the National Organization for Organ & Tissue Donation & Transplantation (NOD), where L.L. 10,000 (US$7) gets you a bike & helmet rental, plus water and a t-shirt from NOD, with all proceeds going to the charity. Sunday (the 19th) BbB will be back on the roads, this time in Dbayeh, co-sponsoring with the sporting goods store Decathlon a fun ride with professional cyclists. They even offer free lessons to teach you how to ride a bike (by appointment and weekdays only). Beirut by Bike is doing an admirable job of making biking a sport accessible to all.

Other noteworthy efforts include the company Outdoor Generation, which offers cycling classes and tours for children and adults; a feasibility study by the Beirut municipality to develop a bike route through the city, and another study for a bike route along the northern coastal road; Deghri, the Arab world’s first bicycle courier service; and Cycling Circle, a club that organizes events such as the upcoming costumed Halloween ride on October 31st (event details available here).

The Lebanese are a determined bunch. Despite pollution, traffic, and general lawlessness on the roads, they are managing to develop a vibrant biking culture. I’m impressed.