BEIRUT: A massive explosion rocked Beirut yesterday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 80 people were killed and more than 4,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
Hours later, ambulances still carried away the wounded as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis: Beirut hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.
The cause of the blast, which sparked fires, overturned cars and blew out windows and doors, was not immediately known.
Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said it might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. Local television channel LBC said the material was ammonium nitrate.
Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange-coloured cloud over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.
An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the blast.
The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and bombardment by Israel. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200km across the Mediterranean.
“It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the (civil) war,” said Marwan Ramadan, who was about 500 metres from the port and was knocked off his feet by the force of the explosion.
Health Minister Hassan Hamad said the preliminary toll was more than 70 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. Emergency teams streamed in from across Lebanon to help, and the injured had to be taken to hospitals outside the capital.
Some of those injured lay on the ground at the port. A civil defence official said there were still bodies inside the port, many under debris.
Initially, video taken by residents showed a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes of what appear to be fireworks. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved.
The fire then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave.
Miles from the port, building facades were shredded, balconies were knocked down and windows shattered. Streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars. Motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.
The US State Department is closely following reports of an explosion in Beirut and stands ready to offer ‘all possible assistance’, a spokesperson for the agency said.
The US embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “the UK is ready to provide support to Beirut in any way we can,” including to those British nationals affected.
GCC countries paid tribute to victims of the blasts, saying they will be sending medical assistance to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia affirmed its full support and solidarity with the victims of the explosions.
The Foreign Ministry said that Saudi Arabia is following with great concern the repercussions of the explosion that took place in Beirut Port, and the resulting deaths and injuries.
Kuwait issued an Amiri decree to send medical assistance to Lebanon.
The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that “our hearts are with Beirut and its people.”
He posted the tribute alongside an image of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, illuminated in the colours of the Lebanese flag.
The explosion was reminiscent of massive blasts during Lebanon’s civil war and took place only three days before a UN-backed tribunal was set to give its verdict in the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing more than 15 years ago. That explosion, with a tonne of explosives, was felt miles away, just like Tuesday’s explosion.
Several of Beirut’s hospitals were damaged in the blast. Roum Hospital put out a call for people to bring it spare generators to keep its electricity going as it evacuated patients because of heavy damage.
Outside the St George University Hospital in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighbourhood, people with various injuries arrived in ambulances, in cars and on foot. The explosion had caused major damage inside the building and knocked out the electricity at the hospital. Dozens of injured were being treated on the spot on the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.
“This is a catastrophe we have on our hands,” said one doctor.
- All Bahraini citizens in Lebanon are safe, the kingdom’s embassy in Syria said last night.