Toddler Isaac was the Beirut port explosion’s youngest victim. His mother, Sarah Copland, is fighting to uncover the truth

When one-year-old Ethan Oehlers goes to bed, he says goodnight to his mum and dad. He also says goodnight to his older brother Isaac.

Ethan never met Isaac. But he recognises him from the photos that line the walls of his family home in Melbourne.

The boys’ mum, Sarah Copland, says it’s important to her and her husband that Ethan knows who Isaac is.

“You never stop being a parent. Isaac’s just as much a part of our family now as when he was alive,” she says.

A colossal tragedy in Beirut

Isaac was just two years old when he died in the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020.

A piece of glass pierced his heart as he sat in his high chair eating dinner that evening, in an apartment about 700 metres from the port.

He died in hospital several hours later from cardiac arrest and internal bleeding, making him the explosion’s youngest victim.

A damaged high chair sits on cream carpet, with shards of glass and debris surrounding it.
Isaac Oehlers was sitting in his high chair when he was hit by a piece of glass as a result of the Beirut port explosion. (Supplied: Sarah Copland)

The blast was the result of 2,750 tonnes of high-density ammonium nitrate — a chemical commonly used as fertiliser but with the potential to be used in high-grade explosives — igniting in a warehouse fire, sending a massive shock wave through the city and laying waste to nearby business and residential areas.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing more than 200 people, injuring more than 7000, and leaving 300,000 people homeless.

Two years later, the exact cause of the fire is yet to be determined. What is known is that the ammonium nitrate was improperly stored in the poorly ventilated warehouse for years, the result of layers of bureaucracy and buck-passing between the government, security services and port officials.

A domestic inquiry into the explosion has been stalled since December, when it was suspended for the fourth time due to lawsuits filed against the investigating judge by two former government ministers implicated in its findings.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 41 seconds

The explosion was captured on smartphones, with the footage widely shared on social media.

Charges of carelessness and negligence have been laid against a number of mostly low-level officials, but no convictions have yet been recorded, despite inquiries revealing those at the most senior levels of government knew about the chemicals being stored at the port, and had been repeatedly warned of the risk they posed.

The stalled process has left victims’ families and survivors stuck in limbo as they wait for answers, the likelihood anyone will be held accountable seeming to diminish every day.

A close-up shot of a woman holding and kissing a young toddler in a blue jacket.
Ms Copland, a UN staffer, has taken it upon herself to fight for justice. (Supplied: Sarah Copland)

Fighting to keep up the pressure

A United Nations staffer, Ms Copland has taken it upon herself to fight for justice on behalf of Isaac and other victims of the explosion.

She’s party to a lawsuit filed in Texas last month against a company which chartered the ship that originally brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in 2013. And she’s pushing for the Australian government to lead the way in calling for an international investigation into the cause of the explosion.

Leave a Comment