He was 10 storeys up an industrial crane, right on the seafront, leaning over the side with just one hand, no rope, no tin hat, quite unprotected, swaying and shouting and screaming, and at first the crowds on the Beirut Corniche ignored him.
Far to the north, Turkey lay across the pale blue sea, Israel 60 miles to the south, behind the Beirut peninsula upon which this young man had decided to demonstrate his fearlessness of death — or his anger — or his despair or, maybe, just his alcoholic illusions.
It was just 7am, the beginning of the Beirut rush hour. At first I thought the guy was joking, making fun of fellow workers. But they didn't know him. He was a Palestinian, they said. It was political.
Then he yelled down to us. “I'm going to jump.” Several Lebanese looked upwards, laughing. There were now 30 or more gathered on the pavement and the road. After all, it wasn't every day that your morning could be brightened up with a harmless suicide.
One guy bawled up at the man on the crane. “Come on! Jump! I haven't got all day!” Then a grinning youth joined in. “Don't waste time! Jump now if you're going to jump!” Of course, we were all complicit in this obscenity. It was cinema, wide-screen, free of charge, reality TV.
Only then did the cops arrive. A few foreign tourists were watching them. Some hope. The cops worked their mobiles, laughed again — and drove off.
I pulled out my own phone and called a relative of a police colonel. I explained what was happening, the location, and added it was a pretty shameless scene, the Lebanese jeering at this lost soul up the crane, the police losing interest, the foreigners appalled at the Lebanese behaviour (there being no calls to “jump” when suiciders pop up on London roofs, of course). Minutes later two brand new fire trucks arrived with a civil defence crew, hooting their way through the traffic.
One young fire officer ordered the fire engine ladder extended against the crane — it was four storeys short — but shinned up the rungs then climbed the outside of the crane. The crowd fell silent. After demanding that the young man commit suicide as quickly as possible, they were now enthralled in a Hollywood drama. Far from willing the crazed man to die, they now wanted to see him rescued. Or did they want to watch the fireman slip and fall?
Then the plainclothes guys began their infiltration. If he was drunk then he was of no interest to the security authorities. “P***ed out of his mind,” one of the plainclothes men confided to me in flawless English — a good cop who's often given me information at the scene of bomb explosions — and the word went through the crowd, that the crane-man was drunk because Palestinians don't drink and are always political and the Lebanese like to enjoy themselves.
I didn't think the crane-man was enjoying himself and he fought viciously when his rescuer clambered on to his platform, kicking him on the legs and trying to break free and jump as we all held our breath; until the fireman threw a rope around crane-man and tied him up and called over to the driver of another crane to winch him up to safety on the roof of the apartments.
And that was the last we saw of crane-man. Yes, a hospital doctor told me later, the guy was “over the limit” and, yes, he was Lebanese. And when the Lebanese fireman-hero eventually emerged from the gate below the crane, we all clapped and applauded our hero. Ghouls all, we made do with a happy ending.