At least 157 killed and more than 5 000 injured as huge explosion rips through Lebanon's Beirut
On the evening of 4 August 2020 at 18h08 (EEST), an extremely powerful explosion occurred in the city of Beirut, Lebanon's capital. The blast at the Port of Beirut, which was preceded by a fire, left at least 157 people dead, 80 more missing and more than 5 000 injured. The explosion left the port a wasteland; cars hanging from the mangled beams of warehouses, bent containers spread across roadways and a large ship listing onto the quayside. It also sent shockwaves across the city, causing widespread damage to buildings and shattering windows even on the outskirts of the capital. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated that up to 300 000 people were left homeless by the explosions. The Lebanese Government declared a two-week state of emergency. The main explosion was linked to about 2 750 tons of ammonium nitrate equivalent to 1,1 kilotons of TNT that had been confiscated by the Government from the abandoned ship MV Rhosus and stored in the port without proper safety measures for six years. By the morning of 5 August 2020, satellite photos had shown that the main fire had been extinguished.
On the afternoon of 4 August 2020, a team of 10 fire fighters were dispatched to extinguish a warehouse fire at the Port of Beirut. A first, smaller, explosion sent a cloud of smoke above the fires and created flashes of light that were caused by a stash of fireworks stored in the warehouse. The second explosion was much more substantial and occurred at about 18h08 local time. It rocked central Beirut and sent a red-orange cloud into the air, briefly surrounded by a white condensation cloud. The second blast was felt in northern Israel and in Cyprus, 240 kilometres away.
Helicopters circling the port area were trying to extinguish a large fire. Sirens filled the air. Hospitals in the city were overwhelmed with wounded and turning those with non-serious injuries away. Pharmacies in the city were asked to welcome the wounded in order to take pressure off hospitals.
The Lebanese Red Cross said that 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 that 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 centres 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 and a number of nations in the West and the Gulf have said they were willing to provide assistance.
The explosion overturned cars and stripped steel-framed buildings of their cladding. Within the port area, the explosion destroyed a section of shoreline and left a crater nearly 120 metres (390 ft) in diameter. Witnesses said that homes as far as 10 kilometres away were damaged by the blast. The grain elevator, the city's second-largest, was destroyed, exacerbating food shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe financial crisis. About 15 000 tons of grain were destroyed, representing 85 percent of the city's grain reserves and leaving the country with less than a month's worth of grain in reserve.
The damage extended over half of Beirut, with the likely cost above $10 billion; 90 percent of hotels in the city were damaged and three hospitals completely destroyed, while two more suffered damage. Dozens of injured people brought to nearby hospitals could not be admitted because of the damage to the hospitals. Windows in buildings across the city were shattered and residential homes over ten kilometres away were rendered unsuitable to live in.
Saint George Hospital is one of the city’s largest medical facilities. Less than one kilometre from the explosion, it was forced to treat patients in the street because of severe damage to the medical facility. Several child cancer patients were injured by flying glass and a number of staff killed. Within hours, it had discharged all its patients, some to other hospitals and closed. The hospital's director of intensive care, Dr Joseph Haddad, was quoted as saying, “There is no St George Hospital any more. It's fallen, it's on the floor ... It's all destroyed. All of it."
Health care workers have stated that Lebanon's main vaccine and medication stockpile is stored in the port-area Karantina warehouse. They are concerned because other structures in this area received heavy damage. Health centres throughout Lebanon rely on the “hundreds of thousands” of doses stored in the warehouse.
The cruise ship Orient Queen, owned by Abou Merhi Cruises and berthed nearby, suffered extensive damage. Two members of the crew were killed and several on board were injured. The ship capsized overnight. The Bangladesh Navy corvette BNS Bijoy, which participated in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was also damaged. The ship was very close to the site of the explosion. The livestock carrier Jouri was close to the site of the explosion; its AIS stopped broadcasting at the time of the explosion. The cargo ship Mero Star was severely damaged. The cargo ship Raouf H was closest to the site of the explosion.
Embassies in and around Beirut reported varying degrees of damage to their buildings. The embassies of Argentina, Australia, Finland and Cyprus, which were close to the blast, sustained heavy damage. The South Korean embassy, 7,3 kilometres from the blast site, reported minor damage to two windows within the embassy building; the Hungarian, Kazakh, Russian, Romanian and Turkish embassies also reported minor damage.
Located in the heart of capital, the port is a vital piece of infrastructure used to get scarce goods in the country. The explosion damaged grains silos in the port which are a strategic reserve of wheat for the crisis-hit nation.
Despite inefficient transmission of the shock waves into the ground, the explosion was detected as a seismic event of magnitude 3,3 by the United States Geological Survey, while the Jordan Seismological Observatory reported that it was equivalent to a 4,5 local magnitude earthquake. Specialists from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom estimated the blast had one-tenth the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, making it one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut on Thursday, becoming the first world leader to visit since the disaster. He is pressing for changes to the political system, a major hurdle to receiving billions of dollars of aid to alleviate one of the worst financial crises in modern Lebanese history.
International rescue workers and aid have begun arriving in the ruins of Beirut, joining local teams combing the rubble for signs of life after a huge explosion on Tuesday destroyed swaths of Lebanon’s capital. From Australia to Indonesia to the EU, Russia and the United States, governments mobilised to send in aid ranging from sniffer dogs to a mobile hospital to help a country already struggling with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised that “what happened will not go without accountability”.
Sources: Aljazeera, BBC, Sky News, The Guardian, CBC News