BEIRUT — Beirut residents awoke to scenes of utter devastation on Wednesday after a massive explosion at the port sent shock waves through the Lebanese capital, killing over a hundred and injuring thousands.
A Lebanese Red Cross official said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 wounded.
Debris and damaged vehicles littered the city’s main streets, facades of houses were blown away, and smoke still rose from huge piles of grain pouring out of hollowed-out silos.
The explosion was the largest in Beirut since the 1975-1990 civil war that destroyed the city.
Source of the Blast
The blast is believed to have been caused by 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stored in the port after it was seized from a ship in 2013. On Tuesday, the stored chemicals detonated after a fire broke out in warehouse in which it was stored.
The explosive cargo was originally carried by a Moldovan-flagged cargo ship that had left Georgia on its way to Mozambique with a crew of 8 Ukrainians and a Russian.
The ship was found unseaworthy during an inspection and the voyage was prohibited, but the charterer lost interest in the cargo. The ship docked in Beirut in October 2013.
A Beirut judge ruled that the ship’s remaining crew can return home after nearly a year without a ship. In 2014, the cargo was brought ashore as a precaution where it was stored. According to court documents, Lebanese officials knew of the cargo and the danger it posed but failed to properly dispose of it.
International assistance has already begun to flow into the country. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry will send five aircraft carrying relief supplies and two helicopters to Lebanon. France has announced that it will send four aircraft, two of which will be humanitarian, and four helicopters. Russia, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and China have all pledged support.
Lebanon’s cabinet has declared a two-week state of emergency. Marwan Abboud, the Governor of Beirut, said more than 300,000 citizens slept rough due to the explosion. Choking back tears during an interview, Abboud called the incident a national catastrophe.
The Lebanese government has ordered the house arrest of several port officials. The documents show that customs officials had warned before the explosion yesterday that the chemical warehouse posed a serious risk. Ministers concluded that Beirut port officials would be placed under house arrest until responsibility for the disaster was established.
Despite the moves by the Cabinet to place the blame on local officials, public anger against the ruling class in the country is growing. The chronic mismanagement and negligence that led to the disaster has been endemic for decades.
The port and its customs offices are notorious for being among the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon, where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, call the shots.
With the country already on the brink due to a tanking economy amid a worsening outbreak of the coronavirus, the explosion at Beirut’s port may bring about the country’s total collapse.
Rami Khouri, adjunct professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut and senior fellow at Harvard University, said to CNN, “My expectation is that the political aftershocks will be as great as the explosion itself.”
“This explosion was the culmination of decades of poor governance that has shattered almost every aspect of the lives of some people in Lebanon. And all they want is to get these people who are running the country out of their lives,” he said.