The Lebanese capital Beirut was hit by a colossal explosion Tuesday afternoon, killing dozens of people and injuring thousands of others as it unleashed a massive shockwave across the city.
The explosion destroyed entire blocks of residential and office buildings, causing widespread casualties. At least 50 people have been killed and some 2,750 wounded,Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters, with the death toll expected to rise further as rescue teams work their way through the rubble.
Videos of the blast, in the port area of the city, showed a thick column of smoke rising in the air, before a large fireball exploded, swiftly followed by a larger explosion, that sent a mushroom cloud into the sky.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud likened the scale of the destruction to “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“It resembles … what happened in Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s what [it] reminds me of. In my life, I haven’t seen destruction on this scale," he told reporters.
“This is a national catastrophe.”
The cause of the blast was unclear. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency initially reported it was due to a major fire at a fireworks warehouse near the port, but Lebanon’s Director-General of Public Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, told Al Jazeera that the blast was caused by a highly explosive material that had been confiscated. Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi said it appeared to have been caused by huge quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse.
In a televised statement, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that “those responsible will pay for what happened.”
“Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced and I will not preempt the investigations,” he said.
The blast left clouds of pink and yellow smoke over the city, leading the U.S. Embassy in Beirut to warn people in the area to stay inside or wear masks to avoid toxic gases.
Hospitals in the city, inundated with victims of the blast, put out urgent calls for people to donate blood to help the injured.. Staff at one overwhelmed hospital were photographed treating patients in the parking lot. Doctors told VICE News most of the injuries they treated were head and skeletal trauma, caused by buildings collapsing on patients.
In the aftermath of the blast, the port area was a scene of devastation, with bloodied survivors staggering through the streets, roads strewn with rubble and broken glass, still falling from damaged buildings. Ambulance sirens could be heard throughout the city.
The explosion was reportedly felt as far away as Cyprus, some 150 miles away.
“We live 10 KM away from the explosion site and the glass of our [buildings] got shattered,” tweeted Abir Ghattas, a Berlin-based Lebanese activist who was sent footage of the blast by her brother in Beirut.
Leila Molana-Allen, Middle East correspondent at France 24, tweeted that the blast had destroyed her block.
“All the buildings in my block are destroyed. Huge explosion in [Beirut]. Everyone covered in glass and blood,” she wrote. “My apartment in Beirut was just blown apart.”
A reporter at the Daily Star newspaper, whose office is near the port, tweeted footage from inside the newsroom, showing windows blown out and office equipment strewn across the room.
As the scale of the devastation became apparent, pledges of support came in from the international community.
French President Emmanuel Macron said "rescue and aid" were already on the way, while Britain, the EU, and Israel said they were ready to provide humanitarian support.
The World Health Organization said it was urgently working to make trauma supplies available, while he U.S. Pentagon said in a statement that it was “concerned for the potential loss of life due to such a massive explosion.”
The explosion has come at an already tense time for Lebanon, which has been rocked by large-scale demonstrations against the government's handling of the country’s economic crisis.
The country is also bracing for the verdict Friday in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, accused of orchestrating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut.
Lama Al-Arian contributing from Beirut.
Cover: A helicopter fights a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)