Over 135 individuals were killed, thousands of civilians were injured and dozens were reported missing as a result of the explosion that took place in Beirut, Lebanon on 4 August 2020. The blast rendered over 300,000 people homeless as destruction engulfed half the city.
Slightly after 6 pm local time (15:00 GMT), the port warehouse that held approximately 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught on fire — ensuing in a large initial explosion. This was subsequently followed by a series of smaller blasts that some witnesses nearby likened to sounds of fireworks going off.
As can be seen in a video footage recorded by witnesses at the site of incident, the explosion that occurred half a minute later caused a supersonic blastwave radiating throughout Beirut and also sent a mushroom cloud into the air.
What else do we know?
President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, attributed the detonation to the unsafe storage and improper management of ammonium nitrate at Warehouse 12 in the port. In 2013, the chemical arrived in Beirut on a cargo ship that suffered technical problems while traveling from Georgia to Mozambique.
When legal issues pertaining to port fees came to light, the ship was not allowed to leave Beirut and the cargo was consequently abandoned by its owners as the shipping company was in debt. Following a court order, the chemical should have been appropriately disposed of or resold. However, the chemical remained unattended to.
The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, and the director general of Lebanese Customs, Badri Daher, mentioned that their requests for the chemicals to be removed from the site were repeatedly ignored.
Numerous documents circulating over the internet proved that customs officials had sent letters to the judiciary from 2014 to 2017. The evidence shared that they sought guidance at least 6 times over the 4 years.
The Lebanese government has now officially ordered the staff — who oversaw the storage of the chemicals within the port — to be put under house arrest while investigations on the matter are ongoing.
A former worker of the port, Yusuf Shehadi, revealed that he had borne witness to dozens of bags of fireworks being stored in the same hangar where the ammonium nitrate was kept. The worker also added that “there were 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks which had been confiscated by customs about a decade ago”.
As such, the presence of these fireworks may have been a decisive factor in igniting the chemical which fuelled the blast.
Who is being held responsible?
The improper management of the explosion has served as additional proof to the Lebanese citizens of the riot that is present at the core of their government. Millions had been plunged into poverty since the civil war that took place in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Many citizens are still upset that their leaders have failed to put a stop to the country’s economic crisis since then.
As a result of all the built up anguish, a violent protest took stage near an entrance to the parliament in central Beirut. Protestors were seen hurling rocks at the security forces and some were burning objects at the locality. Subsequently, riot police were deployed and tear gas was used to disperse the demonstrator’s crowd.
While the trust of the people in their government is low, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the individuals responsible for this incident behind bars. 16 port staff have already been detained as investigations into the matter continue.