In Depth

Beirut chemical blast: did officials know the risks of an explosion?

Sources claim inspectors warned six months ago that fertiliser could ‘blow up all of Beirut’

Investigators probing the deadly blast that levelled parts of Beirut, killing more than 130 people and injuring thousands, have honed in on potential negligence in the storage of explosive fertiliser.

Several port officials have been placed under house arrest, as anger mounts against a “ruling elite that is being blamed for the chronic mismanagement and carelessness that led to the disaster”, Associated Press (AP) says.

The financial loss from the blast, the largest in Beirut’s war-torn history, is estimated to be between $10bn and $15bn, the city’s governor Marwan Abboud told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath.

Where did the fertiliser come from?

Tuesday’s explosion was likely caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the dock since 2014, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi. 

Preliminary investigations have suggested a fire started by a welding accident may have ignited nearby fireworks, causing the chemicals to explode and sending shockwaves across the city.

How such a large quantity of fertiliser came to be stored at the port dates back to a businessman named Igor Grechushkin, “the Russian owner of the Rhosus ship, carrying the deadly cargo from Georgia to Mozambique”, The Telegraph reports. 

In 2014, Grechushkin declared bankruptcy during an unscheduled stop in the city’s port, during which the “cargo ship was prevented from leaving port due to its poor state”, the paper adds. 

Following his bankruptcy, the Russian abandoned the ship leaving the boat, the fertiliser and its crew stranded, according to a Lebanese law firm.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” the firm Baroudi & Associates wrote in a 2015 article published on shiparrested.com.

“The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

Were officials warned about the danger?

Documents seen by Retuers show that Lebanese Customs asked the judiciary in both 2016 and 2017 to request that the “concerned maritime agency” either re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate. 

One of the documents also cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015, the news agency adds.

“It is negligence,” an official source told Reuters, describing how the storage safety issue had been discussed in several committees and judges and “nothing was done”.

Lebanese port officials had “for years” called for the removal of the dangerous fertiliser, The Telegraph reports, citing “preliminary investigations”. 

“The head of Beirut port and the head of customs both said on Wednesday that letters were sent to Lebanon’s judiciary asking for the removal of the nitrates”, the paper adds, “but no action was taken”.

Port general manager Hassan Koraytem told Indian cable news channel OTV the material had been “put in a warehouse on a court order”, adding that they were aware that the material was dangerous but “not to this degree”.

Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanese Customs, also told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) that he too had requested it be “re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why”.

A source close to a port employee told The Telegraph that a team had inspected the fertiliser six months ago, warning at the time that it could “blow up all of Beirut” if it was not removed.

A disaster ‘years in the making’

While the origins of Tuesday’s apocalyptic scenes can be traced back to the abandonment of the ship in 2014, “it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong for Lebanon,” writes The Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent Josie Ensor.

Corruption and greed among its ruling class... had helped bleed the country dry,” Ensor says, with politicians not trying to hide it, but instead “simply blaming one another”.

“Constant spats between the competing religious sects over who would be awarded the spoils had left them virtually incapable of governing.”

BEIRUT, LEBANON - AUGUST 04: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) An injured man rests in a chair after a large explosion on August 4, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Video shared on soci

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2020 Getty Images

The country is run with a culture of “negligence, incompetence, complacency, corruption [and] nepotism,” tweeted Lebanese architect and statist Karl Sharro. “This immoral and parasitical political class has destroyed Beirut and the whole country.”

This was echoed by Lebanese national Dyab Abou Jahjah, who wrote that what exploded on Tuesday was “not just ammonium nitrate”, but “corruption, mismanagement, incompetency and cynical disregard for the security and lives of people”. 

As aid ships begin to roll in to Lebanon, including a £5m aid package from the UK, the rebuilding process will begin again for Beirut’s inhabitants. 

But with 300,000 people now homeless amid a grueling economic crisis, “thousands in the Lebanese capital would have had a restless sleep in their dark, hot and windowless homes on Tuesday night,” Ensor says. 

“The windows may have been knocked out by the blast, but the darkness was of the country’s own making,” she adds.

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