In Depth

‘Crisis after crisis’: everything we know about the Lebanon chemical explosion

More than 100 killed and thousands injured in huge blast that levelled parts of Beirut

Rescue workers are digging through rubble in search of survivors of a huge explosion that killed at least 100 people and left more than 4,000 injured in Beirut on Tuesday.

The blast ripped through the port area of the Lebanese capital shortly after 6pm local time (4pm BST) on Tuesday, causing widespread damage to buildings and sending a huge mushroom-shaped cloud into the sky above.

President Michel Aoun has declared three days of mourning, while Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned in a televised speech that the explosion “will not pass without accountability. Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”

What caused the blast?

Video footage of the incident appears to show two separate explosions.

The first and smaller of the two generated a plume of grey smoke and white sparks, with some eyewitnesses reporting that it sounded “like fireworks”, The Guardian says.

“The first plume of smoke was then suddenly consumed by a massive fireball and white cloud, sending a shockwave scudding across the city,” according to the newspaper, which reports that the blast was felt as far away as Cyprus, a distance of some 120 miles.

Officials say that the exact cause of the explosion is unclear and that an investigation has been launched.

However, the BBC reports that President Aoun has pointed to “2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a warehouse” in the Port of Beirut for a number of years.

The broadcaster says that the chemical - a highly volatile fertiliser that was behind a deadly explosion in the Chinese city of Tianjin in 2015 - had reportedly been “unloaded from a ship impounded at the port in 2013”.

How great is the damage?

The destruction from the explosion was widespread, with streets “littered with upturned cars and the ruins of shattered buildings” on Wednesday morning, The Guardian says. Windows in buildings up to six miles from the blast site were reportedly blown out.

The government is considering enacting a two-week state of emergency as the authorities try to tackle the devastation, which has potentially left thousands of homes uninhabitable.

The human cost is also predicted to climb as rescue workers comb through the wreckage of buildings. 

“Over 100 have lost their lives. Our teams are still conducting search and rescue operations in the surrounding areas," the Lebanese Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday. 

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the organisation’s head George Kettani told local media. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Health Minister Hamad Hasan added: “There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity.” 

What will happen next?

President Aoun has pledged to release 100bn lira (£50.5m) of emergency funds to help deal with the damage.

Meanwhile, health officials have recommended that people in Beirut should leave the city if possible, amid warnings that hazardous materials in the air after the explosion may have long-term deadly effects. 

Ammonium nitrate detonations release large amounts of nitrogen dioxide, a dark red-coloured gas that can cause eye irritation and greatly exacerbate respiratory conditions.

‘Crisis after crisis’

The disaster comes as Lebanon faces a major economic crisis that has resulted in widespread political upheaval and food shortages, with the coronavirus pandemic causing further misery. 

Reports suggest that the blast destroyed a number of vital grain silos and damaged medical facilities already pushed to breaking point by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Today, “as Beirut’s four million residents wake to 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”, says CNN.

Prime Minister Diab has promised that while he that he “will not pre-empt the investigations”, “facts about this dangerous warehouse” will be made public.

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