It is a hot August afternoon in Cairo, but Kawther, a frail-looking woman in her late forties, seems happy despite her obvious fatigue and the bags full of medications that she is carrying as she walks away from the site of last Sunday’s blast that hit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on the Nile Corniche in Cairo.
“I was worried last night when I heard the news of the blasts that had hit the NCI, as I thought my operation would be suspended and I would not know where else to go to get my chemotherapy sessions. I know that it is important for me to get those sessions on a timely basis,” she said.
Around midnight on Sunday, Kawthar learned from TV that a huge blast of unknown causes had hit the NCI. She spent an hour watching the TV to try to learn what had happened, especially since she had heard the blast from her house in Manial across the river to the east of the NCI.
Terror hits Cairo
Early reports from the Interior Ministry had attributed the blast to an accident that had involved three cars. This was reassuring to Kawthar, even though she could not really match the effect of the blast that she had heard with a car accident.
Monday morning came, and Kawthar was walking to the NCI when she saw the devastating scene of shattered facades on two of the four NCI buildings that overlook the Nile on the way from Downtown Cairo to the southern suburbs of Maadi and Helwan.
As she crossed the street, she saw vehicles moving rubble from the shattered buildings. However, as she reached the part of the NCI where she had had her previous chemotherapy sessions she was reassured.
“The doctors were super kind. They are always very kind, but today they were exceptionally reassuring,” Kawthar said.
Throughout a four-hour session, Kawthar said she was not really thinking about possible further blasts or attacks. “I guess it was all about the medical staff who were going out of their way to reassure everyone,” she said.
According to staff who spoke at the NCI on Monday afternoon, the devastating blast occurred sometime around 11pm on Sunday night, possibly 15 minutes after the hour. Nobody really knew what was going on, but it was a terrible situation with patients screaming, nurses running in the corridors, and doctors trying to manage the horror coming from an unidentified source.
Terror hits Cairo
According to the testimonies of staff, it took about 30 minutes for everyone to realise that there had been a blast outside that had caused considerable damage to one building and less damage to the three other buildings of the NCI. At that point, the doctors had to make decisions about whether or not to evict the buildings.
Doctors who shared their experience with Al-Ahram Weekly said it was a tough moment given that they were faced with panicking patients, especially children, and devastated relatives. However, it would have been impossible to order an eviction without a management order. But as some relatives were helping their loved ones exit the NCI with or without a doctor’s permission, the executive orders were on their way.
“It was considered wisest to get them out and have them transferred to other hospitals, mostly within close geographic proximity, pending reassurances that the buildings were safe and that the blast had not caused any gas leaks or other similar hazards,” one doctor said.
It was “a shocking and painful moment for us to see parents carrying their children who had just had very taxing chemotherapy sessions and whose immunity was really questionable to rush onto a street that was polluted with blinding dark smoke caused by the blast,” he said.
“When we talk about the NCI, we are essentially talking about really challenged people without financial means to help them face up to an illness as devastating as cancer. For those poor people, the NCI is an edifice. I looked at their faces, and I saw a look of horror, not just because of the blast, but because of the fear of the unknown that they had to face,” the doctor added.
Operating since 1969, the NCI has long been providing medical services for hundreds of thousands of patients from all over Egypt in diverse age brackets. For the most part, the services of the NCI are free, except in a few cases where patients may pay fully or partially in return for medical services.
On Sunday evening, the minister of health went to the NCI to oversee the evacuation of the patients and to decide next steps. She ordered the transfer of the patients to the Mounira Hospital, the Nasr Institute and the Al-Qasr Al-Aini Hospital. Other patients were taken to an NCI branch in New Cairo’s Fifth Settlement. A few children were transferred to the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357.
On Monday, the NCI issued a statement announcing the safety of all the patients and staff, except for two security personnel who had lost their lives as a result of the explosions. On her Facebook page, Mohga Samy, head of the NCI anaesthesia department, wrote to reassure patients and relatives that work was going on almost as normal and that surgery would be resumed after the Eid holidays in around ten days.
Abdallah Ezzat, a consultant surgeon at the NCI, said he was hopeful that the generosity of donors, which had always been helpful to the operations of the NCI, would help in its prompt restoration. The NCI was not necessarily a place that received a lot of attention and donations “compared to other better-publicised medical services,” but it was essential, he said.
“Maybe something good could come out of the horror, the loss of lives, and the pain of Sunday night. Maybe there will be a bit more awareness of the NCI, which provides services for huge numbers of people every single day,” Ezzat said.
Ezzat himself was not at the NCI when the blasts occurred, though he was at his house in nearby Manial. “I live in an apartment building about 40 minutes from the NCI, and the effect of the blast was felt there. I was not sure what was happening because though the building was moving, I could not think it was an earthquake because there were echoes of a series of blasts,” he said.
It took less than half an hour for Ezzat to learn that an explosion had occurred outside the NCI. His colleagues on duty were already sharing information on Whatsapp groups, and in less than 45 minutes the news was all over Facebook.
Ezzat said that he immediately took to the street, thinking he should go to give help. But he could not go far. When he reached the bridge that links Manial to the Corniche, he found the security services were blocking the road. “I saw bodies thrown around, some of them maimed, but I could not go far because the security was making way for ambulances and fire-fighters,” he said.
What Ezzat clearly saw was “a shocking fire — huge. I thought the building might tumble down. I am glad I was wrong, but really I did not know what was going on,” Ezzat said.
Nobody really knew what was going on, even those who lived not so far from the scene of the explosion like Ezzat, or those like Hossam, a sales assistant at a stationary store overlooking Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street, or Madiha, a housewife who lives in Mounira, a neighbourhood to the west.
Living on Mathaf Al-Manial Street across the river from the NCI, Inas was busy ironing her clothes and watching TV when she saw the TV fall off the table while her two cats started madly screaming.
“One moment I was doing the ironing and then I was on the floor staring at a lamp that seemed to be falling off the ceiling and looking at the glass of shattered windows,” Inas said.
Her first thought was that there had been an explosion in her apartment building. “I did not know what to think. I heard the screams of neighbours and the sounds of their footsteps coming down the stairway, so I opened my door and rushed onto the street from my first-floor apartment to find myself face-to-face with a huge fire and people falling into the Nile,” she said.
Standing in the street, the residents of several adjacent apartment buildings were screaming as they saw “the windows of hell being opened right before us.”
On late Monday afternoon, some, especially children, were still trying to overcome the shock of the fire, the blast, the smell of the explosion, the images of death, and the noise of the sirens of ambulances, fire-fighters, and police cars. Some were busy fixing the damage that had befallen their apartments or offices, especially to the windows.
Ahmed, a window maker who works in the neighbourhood, said that Monday was perhaps the busiest day of his 20 years of work in the area as he has been getting requests to fix the windows of entire apartment buildings, schools, offices and other installations. Ahmed was planning a stop at a flower kiosk on Mathaf Al-Manial, where Mohsen, the owner, was waiting for him.
It was close to midnight on Sunday when Mohsen had had to rush back from his house at the far end of Giza that he had just reached following a two-hour commute in busy traffic after having received a call from the guard of a nearby building saying that the kiosk had been shattered in a matter of seconds.
Speaking before the ministry issued its second press release about the cause of the deadly blast that took the lives of at least 22 people and left over 70 wounded, he then heard the second statement that confirmed what people on the street had been speculating about since the early hours of the blast: a terrorist attack.
“Of course, it was clear from the beginning that it was a deliberate explosion with huge consequences. No car accident could have caused the maimed bodies and so much damage, not just to the NCI building but way beyond,” said Hamed who lives and works in the area.
For many who live and work around the NCI, it was a moment of deep sorrow rather than of immediate fear. Most residents said that they could not overcome the images of scared parents carrying their children as they ran for their lives out of the NCI. Others were unable to overcome the accounts of deaths that were said to have included a bride and groom, along with their two families, as they were finding their way to their wedding.
“It is sorrow, not fear, and it is mercy that we are hoping for,” Madiha said.
The traffic from Downtown Cairo to Maadi and Helwan in front of the NCI was moving steadily and slowly on Monday. Some drivers were staring with awe at the damaged facades of the NCI buildings, now covered with cloth in the three colours of the Egyptian flag: black, red and white.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Terror hits Cairo