Beirut, Lebanon, explosion causes mushroom cloud, deaths

Beirut: A man at the site of explosion.

On Tuesday evening, 4th of August, the world witnessed yet another tragedy of the year 2020 when, at around 15:00 GMT, a massive explosion shook the city of Beirut, Lebanon, killing around 135 people and injuring 5,000 more. Fears rise of an even higher death toll, as hundreds are reported missing. More than 300,000 people have been rendered homeless and the devastated city has been placed under a two-week state of emergency. Emotions of panic and anger are running high in Beirut and the city is in a state of confusion as stories behind the explosion remain muddled up. While Beirutis dig up the rubble, frantic for answers, let us have a look at what we know so far. 

There was a large fire followed by an initial explosion at the Port of Beirut, on the city’s northern Mediterranean Coast. White smoke rose from Warehouse 12 next to the port’s huge grain silos followed by multiple small blasts which seemed like fireworks going off, as reported by witnesses. About thirty seconds later, there was an enormous explosion that sent a huge cloud of thick red smoke in the air and blasted a supersonic wave that radiated through the city. 

What Lebanon is witnessing right now is a “huge catastrophe, with victims and casualties everywhere,” as stated by the head of Lebanese Red Cross, George Kettani. 

How big was the explosion?

If we start mapping down the havoc wreaked in Beirut, it will undoubtedly take us a long time. Beirut is, as termed by Governor Marwan Abboud “a devastated city…half of it destroyed.” The explosion, so powerful it was felt about 150 miles away in Cyprus, tore through the city like a hurricane smashing glass, overturning cars, flattening buildings and bringing down huge metal debris on the ground like rain. 

The immediate dockside was totally wrecked, creating a crater of approximately 140 meters wide. The warehouse where the explosion happened was completely demolished. Images posted on social media showed large scale destruction in the port area, with one ship that apparently blasted out of the water and landed onto the dock. But alas, the port area was not the only place that suffered losses.

A view of the damage at the Port of Beirut
The site of the blast was almost entirely destroyed

Nearby, grain silos that stored around 85 percent of the country’s grain were totally destroyed. Whole sections of the city near the port were knocked down and the shockwave that raced through Beirut’s industrial waterfront, densely populated housing neighborhoods, downtown business and shopping districts caused severe damage and left nothing but wreckage behind. The wave that generated an earthquake of 3.3 magnitude blew out windows at Beirut’s International Airport’s passenger terminal, about 5 miles away. Homes as far as 6 miles away were damaged and the landmark hotels in the city center were shattered. 

Gemmayzeh, an upscale Christian neighborhood was reduced to rubble and dust. Several hospitals were also damaged which slowed down the process of providing first aid to injured people. Four of the hospitals were so badly damaged that they had to be shut down with no apparent date of opening. The buildings that were left standing looked as if they had been stripped naked, with only large skeletons left behind. The roads glistened with shattered glass from smashed cars, glass doors and windows. As the Governor told the press, the financial worth of the damage done is an estimated three billion US dollars.

What caused the explosion?

The exact cause of the explosion that rocked the city of Beirut is still unconfirmed but the officials have blamed an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was lying abandoned in Warehouse 12 since 2014 when it was confiscated from a cargo ship. It arrived in a Russian-owned cargo ship and after inspection, the ship was banned to leave and was abandoned by its owners. The ammonium nitrate after being stowed into Warehouse 12 was expected to be disposed of or at least dealt with carefully, but that never happened despite repeated excursions by the Lebanese customs and the next thing we know is that it destroyed half of Beirut. 

President Aoun said he was “determined to go ahead with an investigation and unveil the circumstances surrounding what happened.” Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances leading to the blast as “unacceptable” and further said that as a head of the government he would not relax until he found “the responsible party for what happened, held it accountable and applied the most serious punishments against it.”

The answer to what or who ignited the ammonium nitrate in Warehouse 12 is what Beirutis are looking for while emergency workers dig up rubble looking for missing people. 

What is Ammonium Nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal like white solid which is relatively safe when stored properly. But it is hazardous if left untreated because it starts to decay. The real problem is that over time it “absorbs little bits of moisture and it eventually turns into an enormous rock,” Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at University College London, explained. This makes it a lot more dangerous when fire reaches it because a chemical reaction would be just as intense.

Ammonium nitrate has been associated with deadly accidents in the past where the worst one happened in 1947 in the US when more than 2000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded and killed more than 500 people. Disasters involving ammonium nitrate are rare but when they do happen, a wide scale destruction is unavoidable. The question that arises is what was ammonium nitrate doing in Warehouse 12 if the authorities knew of the danger it possessed and why did they fail to act for such a long time?

What is the aftermath?

At least 135 people have been killed with more than 5000 injured and as officials say, the death toll is expected to go up. Beirut is home to 2 million people and about 300,000 of this population has been out on the streets since the explosion because their homes are ‘unlivable for the foreseeable future,’ as told by Marwan. The injured were rushed to hospitals that were already choking with the mass of patients coming in while about four hospitals were so badly damaged that they could not take in more patients. At Rosary hospital, near the port, the explosion had tossed patients from their beds and injured many. Another hospital, Saint George Hospital University Medical Center, which had been open for more than a century, was also shut down after sustaining huge damage. Several of its patients were killed and four nurses were injured. 

Rescue workers are still looking for missing people and rushing the injured ones to hospitals while electricity has been down in Beirut because of the blast making it difficult to evacuate people in the dark. Amid all this havoc, coronavirus cases are feared to rise to a high level in the coming day because of interaction between doctors and patients without proper safety measures as most of the equipment was damaged during the blast. 

Wreckage near the blast site in Beirut on Tuesday.
Wreckage near the blast site in Beirut on Tuesday. Credit…Wael Hamzeh/EPA, via Shutterstock

The tragedy of this is that the blast came at a time when Lebanon was already suffocating under an economic crisis as well as trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. The economic situation has pushed Lebanon to a breaking point as its public debt-to-gross domestic product is the third highest in the world; unemployment stands at 25%; and nearly a third of the population is living below the poverty line. The coronavirus pandemic was a tragedy enough for the people of Lebanon and the horrors of 4th August have made matters far worse for a country that is already in deep waters.

Lebanese Red Cross is doing the best it can by aiding the victims and providing shelter to those who are homeless and many other countries and leaders have rushed to Lebanon’s help. President Trump, Australian Prime Minister Morrison and Russian President Vladimir Putin all offered funding and help. The United Nations and World Health Organization are also working with Lebanese authorities. France, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Iraq helped by sending relief packages and setting up hospitals for the wounded people. 

The dead may be buried, the victims treated and the rubble cleared up, but Beirutis will forever remain affected by this explosion as they struggle today to salvage what they can from their devastated city which might never be the same again.


Bareera Adnan is a writer, a reader, a life enthusiast and a girl trying to keep up with the world. She loves journalism and writes for Global Domestic Affairs in Jayzoq.
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