BEIRUT: Rescuers are searching for survivors in Beirut after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.
The scale of the destruction seen on Wednesday morning as the Lebanese capital woke up resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.
The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse at the port on Tuesday, was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 240 kilometres (150 miles) to the northwest.
President Michel Aoun said that ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, and he said that was “unacceptable”.
He called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Smoke was still rising from the port on Wednesday morning. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.
“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage on Wednesday that he estimated would cost between $3 billion and $5 billion.
“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.
Lebanese Red Cross official George Kettaneh said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded and said the toll could rise further.
“There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hasan said.
Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 kilometres from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help in clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.
Fireworks and ammonium nitrate?
Witnesses reported seeing an orange cloud-like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.
Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertiliser but can also be highly explosive
There is no evidence the Beirut explosion was an attack and a government security source and local media say it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.
Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.
Other experts suggested fireworks combined with ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited the massive.
The chemical compound itself typically doesn’t detonate on its own and requires another ignition source. That likely came from a fire that engulfed what initially appeared to be fireworks that were stored at the port.
Online videos of the disaster’s initial moments show sparks and lights inside the smoke rising from the blaze, just prior to the massive blast. That likely indicates that fireworks were involved, said Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works closely with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives.
“Before the big explosion, you can see in the centre of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” Hayoun said.
The US embassy in Beirut warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
International aid pours in
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation after a deadly explosion at a port warehouse in capital, Beirut.
In a short televised speech on Wednesday, Diab said: “We are witnessing a real catastrophe”.
He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the massive explosion at Beirut’s port will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.
International aid in the form of emergency workers and medical personnel was heading to Lebanon as pledges from countries continued to roll in.
Russia’s emergency officials said the country will send five planeloads of aid to Beirut, including rescuers, medical workers, a makeshift hospital and a lab for coronavirus testing to Lebanon.
France plans to send two planes with dozens of emergency workers, a mobile medical unit and 15 tonnes of aid.
French peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon, a former French protectorate, have been helping since the explosions, the president’s office said.
Jordan vowed to dispatch a military field hospital including all necessary personnel, according to the Royal Court.
Egypt has opened a field hospital in Beirut to receive the wounded.
Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says Lebanon has accepted an offer to send a team of 37 rescuers with sniffer dogs to Beirut.
Scale of destruction
“We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,” said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometre from the seat of the blast.
“We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,” he said, his voice choked by tears.
The blast revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.
Dazed, weeping and injured people walked through streets searching for relatives.
“The blast blew me off metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the US embassy in 1983,” said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.
Diab promised there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the “dangerous warehouse”, adding “those responsible will pay the price”.
Aoun declared three days of mourning and announced he would release $66 million (100 billion lira) of emergency funds amid a massive economic crisis.
Condolences poured in from across the world, with Gulf nations, the US and even Lebanon’s arch-foe, Israel, offering to send aid.
Trial of 2005 bombing
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shia group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km from the port.
Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday’s blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance.
Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and Cyprus.
At a White House briefing, US President Donald Trump indicated that the blast was a possible attack, but two US officials said initial information contradicted Trump’s view.