Ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse linked to catastrophic Beirut explosion

Beirut Explosion
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Beirut was declared a ‘disaster city’ by authorities on Wednesday, in the wake of a huge explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital that left at least 135 people dead and 5000 injured. The number of deaths is expected to climb amid ongoing search and rescue efforts.

Many people were still missing the day after the Tuesday blast, and 300,000 have been displaced from their homes. The city’s emergency services, already under strain due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were operating at decreased capacity after four hospitals were damaged. The explosion’s shockwave damaged buildings up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.

A warehouse storing thousands of tons of an unsecured and volatile chemical compound has emerged as a possible source of the blast. It’s still not exactly clear what led to the ignition that wiped out entire streets, but questions swirled Wednesday over whether the authorities had failed to act on warning signs.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate — typically used as an agricultural fertilizer — had been stored for six years at a warehouse in the Beirut port without safety measures, “endangering the safety of citizens,” according to a statement.

Unheard warnings

Initial reports in state media blamed the blast on a major fire at a firecrackers warehouse near the port. But the Prime Minister’s account was backed up by the country’s general security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who said a “highly explosive material” had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes’ walk from Beirut’s shopping and nightlife districts.

According to local media, the head of Lebanon’s customs authority said he had sent six memos to the country’s judiciary warning that substances being stored in the port were dangerous to the public.

The Director General of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem said Wednesday he knew the materials stored “in warehouse number 12” were dangerous, “but not to that extent.”

Kraytem told the local television channel OTV that maintenance was conducted on the warehouse’s door at noon, hours before the blast, adding that they have been waiting for some resolution on the removal of “explosive materials.”

“Customs and State Security sent letters [to the authorities] asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this issue to be resolved, but to no avail,” he said.

As the investigation into the devastating blast in Beirut continues, officials have pointed to a possible cause: A massive shipment of agricultural fertilizer that authorities say had been stored in the port of Beirut without safety precautions for over six years.

Maritime traffic services and documents obtained by CNN do describe a shipment of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that was detained in Beirut in 2013 on on its way to Mozambique.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun promised a transparent investigation into the causes of the explosion, vowing Wednesday that those responsible would be held accountable and face “severe punishment.”

The Lebanese cabinet ordered port officials to be placed under house arrest in the coming days, pending the results of the probe, according to Ghada Shreim, the minister for displaced people.

As Beirut’s 4 million residents struggle to come to terms Wednesday with the full horror and scale of the damage to their city, lives, and livelihoods, questions will be asked about why such large quantities of the dangerous chemical were allowed to be stored in the middle of the city without adequate safety measures — and who is responsible.

Immediate concerns remain with the casualties, which are expected to rise further. Hospitals, already stretched from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, are inundated with the wounded, and while the death toll steadily rose through into Wednesday, the true cost of life may not be known for several days as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage and the scale of the devastation is realized.

Relatives of the missing are scouring hospitals looking for their loved ones. Lebanese authorities said hundreds were still missing, including children, and that 300,000 people had been displaced from their homes.

Four hospitals are out of service because of damage from the explosion, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Wednesday, adding that the health ministry has an emergency plan with field hospitals being sent from Qatar, Iran, Kuwait, Oman and Jordan. Hassan estimates that six to eight field hospitals will be ready “soon.”

The blast also comes at a difficult time for the cash-strapped country, which has been ravaged by economic and political turmoil exacerbated by the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak.

Though Lebanon has only confirmed 5,062 coronavirus cases and 65 related deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, pandemic-related restrictions have further exacerbated the country’s deep and long-running financial crisis.

Violent protests have erupted over rising hunger and poverty, which has soared to over 50%, and scenes of people scavenging garbage dumps for basic necessities have become commonplace.

Power outages are common in the capital, compounding pressures on basic services to provide for the injured.

Tuesday’s explosion in the Lebanese capital resulted in an estimated US$3-5 billion worth of damage, Beirut governor Marwan Abboud told reporters Wednesday.

Prime Minister Diab has launched an investigation into the blast, saying he “will not rest until we find those responsible for what happened, hold them accountable, and impose maximum punishment.”

Ammonium nitrate is a highly volatile material that’s used in agricultural fertilizer and high-grade explosives. Two US tons of the chemical was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a domestic terror attack that killed 169 people. Following Tuesday’s explosion, the United States Embassy in Beirut urged those in the area to “stay indoors and wear masks if available” due to reports of toxic gases released from the blast.

However, Anthony May, a retired ATF explosives investigator for the US government, said that the bright or dark red cloud seen in videos of the blast “is not consistent with ammonium nitrate.” The telltale sign of the compound would be a yellow smoke cloud, he said.

“I’m not saying that ammonium nitrate was not involved in this, it may have been but it appears that there were other items in there as well,” May said.

The amount of explosives and the shockwaves created by the blast, May said, “is typical of what would be equivalent to a kiloton nuclear bomb going off as far as the explosive weight is concerned.”

“There was no nuclear material that we know of involved in this, but the shock wave generated, the blast wave generated is at equivalent to a small nuclear device,” May said.

Adding to the confusion of what caused the incident, US President Donald Trump offered sympathy and assistance to the people of Lebanon, referring to the incident as a “terrible attack.”

Three US Defense Department officials later contradicted the President’s comments, saying that as of Tuesday night there was no indication that the explosion was an “attack.” Lebanese officials have not described the incident as an attack.

Other world leaders, including from Israel, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia and Spain have offered support and humanitarian medical assistance to Lebanon.

Apocalyptic scenes akin to ‘Hiroshima’

The explosion, which happened just after 6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET), tore through the city and wreaked havoc on nearly all of Beirut’s quarters, registering as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake in the Lebanese capital.

Footage captured the injured staggering through streets in the capital; and ambulances, cars and military vehicles packed with the wounded.

One resident said the scenes looked “like an apocalypse,” another said the port was “totally destroyed.”

“You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged,” said Bachar Ghattas, another resident. “It is very, very frightening what is happening right now, and people are freaking out. The emergency services are overwhelmed.”

The official residence of Lebanon’s President, the headquarters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and CNN’s bureau in downtown Beirut were damaged. Homes as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) away were also damaged, according to witnesses. Hariri on Wednesday called for international experts to take part in the investigation into the blast.

The city’s governor Marwan Abboud said the scene reminded him of the atomic bomb blasts at the end of the Second World War in “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

“In my life I haven’t seen destruction on this scale,” Abboud said. “This is a national catastrophe.”

Hospitals in Beirut were overwhelmed with the wounded and doctors conducted triage on dozens of injured people in car parks and sidewalks. Some were so full they were turning people away, one witness said.

“The emergency room looked like a war had begun, the children — their hands, their legs, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Serge Mahdessian, a hairdresser in Beirut.

Open lots turned into makeshift field hospitals as people pulled themselves and their loved ones out of the rubble of their homes. Some had broken limbs, others had been showered with shards of glass. Some patients were unconscious. One of Beirut’s major hospitals, Hotel Dieu, received around 400 injured patients, an employee told CNN.

The Lebanese Red Cross implored the public on Twitter for blood donations to help the wounded and said it has opened triage centers and first aid stations to help those with non-critical injuries. All its ambulances across the entire country were dispatched to the capital to support with the rescue and evacuation of patients.

The Philippine Embassy in Beirut on Wednesday confirmed that two of its citizens died in the explosion. Eight other Filipinos suffered injuries, including one in critical but stable condition. Two of the injured were part of a group of 13 Filipino seafarers whose ship was docked “some 400 meters away from blast zone,” said the Embassy, who added that the other 11 have been reported as missing.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at least one Australian was killed in the blast and the Australian Embassy building has been “significantly compromised.”

Among the injured are six Turkish citizens, a Chinese citizen, a Japanese national and an Indonesian, according to their respective governments. South Korea’s foreign ministry said its embassy in Beirut sustained minor damage but had not received any reports of South Korean victims.