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Explosion in Beirut kills 220, injures over 6,000

05 August 2020

An explosion in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon killed at least 220 people and injured over 6,000 on August 4 with 110 people still missing as of August 10. The significant blast sent shockwaves through the city, destroying buildings and overturning cars, and was felt as far away as Cyprus, 150 miles (241km) away.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Rescue operations continued into August 5 with search operations being conducted across the city to find survivors amongst the rubble of destroyed buildings. The death and injury tolls are expected to continue to rise in the coming days with many people still missing.

The incident started when firefighters were called to a warehouse fire at around 18:00 local time in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon’s main port. The fire caused a smaller explosion to occur which sent a dark plume of smoke into the sky. Some witnesses reported seeing flashing lights in the smoke which resembled fireworks.

A second explosion occurred a few minutes later at 18:08 and caused significantly more damage than the first. Videos taken from across the Lebanese capital show the moment of the blast which sent shockwaves across the city and instantly destroyed several buildings surrounding the warehouse where it originated from. The explosion sent a much larger plume of reddish-brown smoke into the sky.

There was initial confusion over the exact location of the blast and what the cause may have been. Later in the evening of August 4, General Director of Lebanese General Security Abbas Ibrahim said that the blast may have involved around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical primarily used as a fertiliser in agriculture or for mining explosives. Ibrahim added that the large amount of ammonium nitrate had been confiscated six years ago and had been kept at the port without safety measures.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan told Reuters that the government was struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster with thousands of people contacting emergency departments in search of missing family and friends. Rescue operations were made more difficult overnight due to the lack of electricity in the impacted area.

Arrow indicates location of blast (behind grain elevator) - Image: Shutterstock
Arrow indicates location of blast (behind grain elevator) - Image: Shutterstock

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that it was “unacceptable” that so much ammonium nitrate was allowed to be kept at the port for so long without safety measures. Aoun called an emergency cabinet meeting on August 5 and declared a two-week state of emergency. The country’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that those responsible for the blast would be held accountable and that they would “pay the price.” 

The US embassy in Beirut warned locals that toxic gases may have been released into the atmosphere by the blast and that they should stay indoors if possible and wear face masks. The United States Geological Service has said that the second explosion measured as a 3.3 local magnitude earthquake.

The blast left a devastating scene in Lebanon’s capital with buildings destroyed or gutted with windows and doors blown out. Some witnesses reported that buildings as far away as 6 miles (10km) away were damaged.

Three hospitals in the capital city were destroyed while two others were partially destroyed, forcing patients to be treated in the surrounding roads and car parks. Lebanon’s government said that the blast also destroyed an important grain elevator at the Port of Beirut which will cause further damage to the country’s economy and food supplies which have already been impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Due to the potential of toxic gases in the immediate vicinity of the blast’s origin, firefighting efforts included the use of several helicopters which dumped water on top of the blaze. The fire continued to burn into August 5.

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