I had never experienced a blast before that fateful day. I had only seen missiles flying overhead but never once did it land anywhere near where I lived. During the Gulf War of 1991, we all went into over-drive, going to neighborhood meetings to discuss emergency and rescue plans, taking first aid classes just in case Jordan was dragged into the war, but never once did I see Red Cross/Crescent people going into full action. I had seen old bombed buildings in Central Beirut and on TV but had never experienced it first hand until that terrible day.
We used to spend most of our day and some hours of the night socializing on the Main Gate steps over looking College Hall (Picture above). It was simply beautiful. An old building that warmly greeted you the moment you walked through the university's main gates….Majestic in my eyes and the eyes of many AUBites. It held years of wisdom in its every stone since the university's establishment in 1866; the hall that was visited by three of my family's generation and was held in high esteem by all of us. Even though I had attended two other universities, none touched me as deeply as AUB did and College Hall was definitely one of my favorite structures on that campus.
But alas... that old structure was to be no more within 3 months of my first step on that campus. The day was November 8th 1991 a few minutes past 4:00am. I was in my dormitory bed which was on the lower campus of the university, a walking distance away from College Hall, when I woke up a few minutes before the unforgettable deafening sound. For some reason, a voice asked me to wake up and open my window overlooking the sea. When I went back to sit on my bed, I turned around and saw a strange orange light painting the sky. Seconds later, the sound of the explosion engulfed my whole body and disturbed the sweet dreams of sleeping students. I will never forget that sound which still rings in my ears 20 years later. I remember how not a single sound came out of my mouth as my roommate screamed with fear. I was in shock; my mind was racing trying to interpret the unfamiliar sounds, vibrations and strange sights, trying to make sense of them. I went to my friend’s bed, slowly led her to my own and hugged her tightly.
After ten minutes, I went down stairs to the dorm lounge to see many girls walking around crying and looking worried. Their shut windows had shattered and filled their rooms with sharp broken glass. They were huddled together wondering what on Earth caused that explosion sound. Was it another skirmish between factions? Was it the start of a new war? Phone calls from other dorms and security guards on the gates started flooding the system. Since it was dark, not many were sure what was going on. But then the blood draining news came through the telephone lines... College Hall was bombed!
Against the advice of my resident mother, I left the dorm through a broken window and went to check on my friends in the surrounding dorms to see if they were all right. I am not the type who would stand there and wait for news. I had to explore and check what was going on by myself.
After making sure my friends were all right, I made my way up the steps to Upper Campus and walked slowly trying to feel my way in the dark. The early rays of light were still not enough to see things clearly and so many times I found myself squinting trying to see through the dense pine trees on campus. I was looking for it.... the Campus compass and which was seen from many corners of the serene grounds. I kept making my way towards the hall... my beacon... desperately trying to find it. When the way was cleared by the trees, I found that my beacon was no longer piercing the sky but resting on its side beside a pile of rubble. I took in a deep breath, held it in for a few second to give my mind a chance to process what my eyes were looking at.
The sea view side of College Hall was completely damaged... in ruins... and the Clock Tower... Our beacon... Our compass... was on the ground lying broken and helpless as the man it trapped underneath the rubble. The rescue team could not move him as he would have died instantly. They stayed with him for 6 hours trying to keep him as comfortable as possible... but as the Old Clock stopped so did his heart. A sad day for every AUBite!
The after several days... many students went into action trying to save as many of the important documents as possible. I was one of many students who risked going into the broken building to retrieve anything valuable from the destruction. Every sound the standing rubble made, we had to run out of the building thinking it would collapse in any minute. I believe we were trying to breathe in the last moments of the Hall, to touch the remaining stones that contained years of history and be its companion until its final day. The last time I ran down the steps tracing its dust covered walls with my fingers, I picked up a few of its number signs as a memento just as we keep pictures of loved ones who passed on.