Stunned residents of the Lebanese capital woke up searching for answers and loved ones today, after catastrophic explosions at the city’s port destroyed a huge area of the city.
At least 100 people have been confirmed dead, and nearly 4,000 injured by the blasts, but the death toll is certain to rise. Rescue workers spent the night picking through the rubble of levelled neighbourhoods for survivors, braving the threat of collapsing buildings as smoke continued to rise from the port.
As many as 300,000 people lost their homes in the blasts, according to Beirut governor Marwan Abboud, and authorities were scrambling to provide them with shelter and food. He said the damage, estimated to cost more than $3 billion, extended over about half the city.
The disaster will only compound the struggles of a country that was already facing its most serious economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, bringing serious food shortages and political instability as it battled a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, Georges Kettaneh, told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
The blasts triggered a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, was felt 150 miles across the Mediterranean in Cyprus, and left a deep crater in the port. They sent a massive shockwave across the city, knocking people off their feet far from the port, and released huge clouds of pink and yellow smoke into the air, prompting warnings not to inhale the toxic gases.
The city’s overwhelmed hospitals, two of which were destroyed and three damaged by the force of the colossal blasts, were teeming with victims and people searching for loved ones. A car park near the port was turned into an impromptu triage zone, and residents shared pictures of family members online in a bid to locate the missing. Hundreds of people have been reported missing, Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters.
Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, have linked the explosions to a massive stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – a highly explosive chemical used in fertiliser and bombs – that had been stored at the port for years. Officials have not confirmed what ignited the blasts, but some reports have claimed it was caused by welding work being carried out in the area.
According to reports, the massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate – the same substance used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – arrived in Beirut in September 2013, on board a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged cargo ship sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.
The hazardous stockpile was impounded and remained in a hangar at the port for years, despite repeated requests by customs officials to judges to relocate the dangerous chemical, according to Al Jazeera.
Both Aoun and Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab have condemned the failure to safeguard the dangerous stockpile as unacceptable and have promised harsh consequences for those found responsible.
“It is unacceptable that a shipment of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has been present for six years in a warehouse, without taking preventive measures,” said Diab.
A probe has been launched, with the investigating committee due to refer its findings to the judiciary within five days.
Diab, the prime minister, declared three days of national mourning, and appealed for international assistance. “We are witnessing a real catastrophe,” he said in a televised address. "I make an urgent appeal to friendly and brotherly countries... to stand by Lebanon and to help us heal our deep wounds.”
Aoun called for a two-week state of emergency.
The disaster is expected only deepen anger and frustration at the country’s ruling class, widely viewed as incompetent and corrupt, and deepen the woes of an import-dependent country already teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Lebanon is dependent on imports for most of its essentials, and the blasts destroyed silos estimated to hold 85 percent of the country’s grain stocks.
The country had already been facing regular street demonstrations sparked by the ongoing currency crisis, which has seen the value of the Lebanese pound plummet and push daily essentials out of reach of working people.