Before the blast
after the blast

History

The economy of Lebanon was in a state of crisis prior to the explosions, with the government having defaulted on debt, the pound plunging, and a poverty rate that had risen past 50 percent. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic had overwhelmed many of the country’s hospitals, several of which already were short of medical supplies and unable to pay staff due to a financial crisis. The morning before the explosion, the head of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which served as the main corona virus medical facility in Lebanon, warned that it was approaching full capacity.

The government-owned Port of Beirut serves as the main maritime entry point into Lebanon and a vital piece of infrastructure to import scarce goods. The port included 4 basins, 16 quays, 12 warehouses, a large container terminal, and a grain silo that served as a strategic reserve of wheat for the country. The Beirut Naval Base is a part of the port.

Explosions

view of the blast from a building’s top
view from a building nearby

On the afternoon of 4 August 2020, a large fire broke out in Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut. The waterside Warehouse 12 was situated next to the grain silo and stored the ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated from V Rhosus alongside a stash of fireworks. Around 17:55 local time (14:55 UTC), a team of nine firefighters and one paramedic was dispatched to fight the fire. On arrival the fire crew reported there was “something wrong” as the fire was huge and produced “a crazy sound.”

A large explosion, though the smaller of the two that were to occur, sent up a cloud of smoke and was followed by flashes of light caused by stored fireworks going off. The second explosion was much more substantial and occurred around 33 to 35 seconds after the first at about 18:08 local time (15:08 UTC). It rocked central Beirut and sent a red-orange cloud into the air, briefly surrounded by a white condensation cloud. The orange-red colour of the smoke was caused by nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of ammonium nitrate decomposition. The second blast was felt in northern Israel and in Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away.

o orange-red color of the smoke

Despite inefficient transmission of the shock waves into the ground, the United States Geological Survey measured the blast as a 3.3 local magnitude earthquake, while the Jordan Seismological Observatory reported that it was equivalent to a 4.5 local magnitude earthquake. Specialists from the University of Sheffield estimated that the blast was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. The Beirut explosion was similar to explosions of large amounts of ammonium nitrate in Tianjin, China, in 2015, or in Texas City, United States, in 1947.

Cause

The cause of the explosions was not immediately determined, although state media initially reported them taking place at a fireworks warehouse, while others placed them at an oil storage or chemical storage facility.

There were warehouses in the port that stored explosives and chemicals including nitrates, common components of fertilizers and explosives. The General Director of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, said ammonium nitrate that was confiscated from Rhosus had exploded. The 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate was the equivalent to around 1,155 tonnes of TNT (4,830 gigajoules).

{ Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white solid commonly used as a source of nitrogen for agricultural fertiliser. But it can also be combined with fuel oils to create an explosive used in the mining and construction industries. Militants have made bombs with it in the past.}

How the ammonium nitrate came to be stored

23 September 2013

The Rhosus, a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged merchant vessel departs from Batumi, Georgia en route to Mozambique carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The bill of lading shows the chemicals were purchased by Fabrica de Explosives, a Mozambican industrial explosives company.

October 2013

The Rhosus makes a stop in Beirut. Some sources suggest it did so due to a technical fault, but the former captain has claimed it wanted to take on extra cargo to make the voyage more profitable. There, the crew went on strike due to unpaid wages, he says. Lebanese authorities refused to let the ship leave, claiming since the explosion they believed it was unseaworthy.

But the ship’s former captain has said it was stopped due to unpaid port fees. The International Transport Workers Federation, which sought back wages and repatriation for the crew, confirmed that the ship was being held in part because it owed the port $100,000 in unpaid bills. Some of the crew were not allowed to leave for another 11 months, claiming they were “incarcerated” on the vessel.

27 June 2014

The then-director of Lebanese customs, Shafik Merhi, sends a letter to an “urgent matters judge” warning of the danger of the ammonium nitrate and asking for a ruling on what should be done with it.

July 2014

The Rhosus has by this point been “abandoned” by its owner.

October 2015

The 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate aboard the Rhosus has by this point been placed in a warehouse and the ship is detained at the port, according to lawyers for the crew, who have since been released from the vessel.

It is not known how much longer the empty vessel remained in Beirut, or where it went afterwards. The ship’s former captain says it sank “two or three years ago”.

20 May 2016 to 27 October 2017

Lebanese customs officials send three more letters to the judiciary. The latest, sent on 27 October 2017, urges the judge to make a quick decision in light of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there”.

They claim that the letters are ignored and nothing is done.

December 2019

A state security report is submitted to the judiciary, the presidency and the intelligence and customs directorates warning of “the real danger arising from these materials”.

Early 2020

An anonymous source close to a port employee has told Reuters that a team inspected the ammonium nitrate six months before the explosion and warned that if it was not moved, it would “blow up all of Beirut”.

24 July 2020

Lebanon’s public works minister, Michel Najjar, learns of the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port from a report he receives from the country’s supreme defence council.

4 August 2020, 5.40pm

A fire is reported at the Beirut port. Exactly how and where it started are not clear. Lebanese media has quoted the port’s general manager, Hossan Koraytem, as claiming that a team of welders was sealing the gap in warehouse 12 and finished their work by noon. Unnamed security sources have claimed that the crew finished before 5pm.

Reuters on Wednesday quoted sources as claiming that the fire started at nearby warehouse 9 and spread to warehouse 12, with no mention of any welding.

Others have observed the sputtering red explosions that preceded the large blast in some videos suggest that fireworks might have been the source of the initial fire.

At least 10 firefighters are dispatched to the port to put out the fire, which by 5.54pm is sending plumes of thick smoke above Beirut.

4 August 2020, 6.08pm

Beirut explosion: scores dead and thousands hurt as blast rips through city.

Investigation

The government formed an investigation committee led by the prime minister, Hassan Diab, which will submit its findings to the Council of Ministers of Lebanon by 11 August. The committee includes the justice, interior and defence ministers, and the head of the top four security agencies: the Army, General Security, Internal Security Forces, and State Security. The investigation is to examine whether the explosion was an accident or due to negligence, and if it was caused by a bomb or another external interference. President Aoun rejected calls for an international probe despite demands from world leaders.

On 5 August, the Council agreed to place 16 Beirut port officials who had overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, overseen by the army, pending the investigation into the explosions. 

Relief operations

The Lebanese Red Cross said every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa, and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients. According to the agency, a total of 75 ambulances and 375 medics were activated in response to the explosions. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the government would make up to 100 billion pounds (US$66 million) in aid available to support recovery operations. The ride-sharing app Careem offered free rides to and from hospitals and blood donation centers to anyone willing to donate blood. Volunteers removed debris while local business owners offered to repair damaged buildings for free in the absence of a state-sponsored cleanup operation.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan requested that international aid be sent to Lebanon, a number of countries sent in food, medical supplies, field hospitals, medical workers, and rescue teams.

Reactions

Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that 5 August, the day after the explosions, would be a national day of mourning. The Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency. President Aoun said the government would provide support to displaced people, and the Ministry of Health would meet the expense of treatment for the wounded. 

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