HENRICO, Va. -- Central Virginians with Lebanese roots are reeling after a massive explosion Tuesday that killed dozens and injured thousands in the capital city of Beirut.
Gus Harika reflected inside his Glen Allen home as he thought about his family in Lebanon.
“The Switzerland of the Middle East is what they call it. Unfortunately, it is not so anymore," Harika said. "It has changed quite a bit since I’ve been here.”
Harika was born in Lebanon before moving to the United States in the early 1970s. His brother Sam still lives there. The two keep in touch over Facetime.
He received a phone call from his brother during the explosion and watched the event happen on Facetime.
“They saw the first smoke and I’m going what’s going on, what’s going on. Show me what’s going on," Harika said.
Harika said his brother turned the camera around and he saw chaos.
"When he turned the phone, he screamed and it was the second explosion. I mean we actually witnessed it happening," Harika said.
"It's just devastating. It would be like being at the twin towers when the airplanes hit," Sandra Joseph Brown, organizer of the Lebanese Food Festival Richmond, said. "It was just like that because of the port of Lebanon is heart of the city of Beirut."
Lebanon officials said at least 135 people died, more than 5,000 were injured and hundreds are still reported missing. Harika’s said his brother's dentist was among those killed.
“It was a father and son. The father died on the spot," Harika said. "The son is critically injured now, he’s in intensive care in Beirut."
The blast sent a giant cloud of smoke into the sky, flattened much of the city’s port and damaged buildings across the city. Harika said he wishes he could help.
“Of course. You want to be there, you want to just as a support or just to help whatever you can do," Harika said. “Wish for peace in the Middle Sast. That’s a big wish...big wish.”
Lebanese Red Cross official Georges Kettaneh said there were dead and wounded, but did not have an exact figure, just saying there were hundreds of casualties.
The cause of the blast was not immediately known. The state-run National News Agency reported that the source of the explosion was a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port in Beirut, according to CNN.
An Israeli government official says Israel “had nothing to do” with it.
The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings, and bombardment by Israel. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, across the Mediterranean.
The explosion came the same day that dozens of Lebanese protesters tried to storm the Ministry of Energy, angered by prolonged power cuts as the country grapples with a crippling economic crisis.
Security forces pushed back against the angry protesters, chasing away some who breached the ministry perimeter. Scuffles ensued as protesters pushed the metal barricade and said they plan to set up a sit-in at the ministry.
It's unclear if the protests were linked to the explosion.
Lebanon's economic and financial crisis poses the most significant threat to the country since a devastating 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The highly indebted government is facing rapid inflation, soaring unemployment, and poverty and has been unable to provide essential resources.