The Two Explosions
On 4 August, a boom was heard at the port of Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. The fire brigade was informed that it was “a hangar with just fireworks”, and a team of 10 firefighters were immediately dispatched to the scene.
Upon arriving at the scene, they noticed something wrong. The sound was unusually loud and the fire bigger than expected, prompting them to call for backup. And then all hell broke loose.
A second explosion occurred, this time on a scale so massive that it made the first explosion look like a spark. In an instant, a wave of destructive energy shot through the city, shattering windows and levelling buildings.
The blast was registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake and was felt in Cyprus, about 240 kilometres away. Specialists at the University of Sheffield in the UK said that it was “unquestioningly one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history.”
Beirut’s governor has assessed the damage to be around three to five billion US dollars. The death toll has risen to at least 137, with more than 5000 injured. The 10 firefighters that first responded to the scene are either confirmed or presumed dead.
The Cause – Ammonium Nitrate
Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab said that the blast was caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been lying unsecured in a warehouse for six years. The highly explosive chemical originated from a cargo ship headed for Mozambique.
In 2013, the ship was forced to port in Beirut due to mechanical issues and the shipping company going bankrupt. The ammonium nitrate was seized and stored in the warehouse, where it became the ticking time bomb that would explode six years later.
The Beirut port officials involved in the handling of the ammonium nitrate have since been placed under arrest as part of the government investigation. However, the chief of customs department Badri Daher said that his agency had written to the judges about the ammonium nitrate numerous times over the years, warning them of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there”. His pleas went ignored.
Source: The Straits Times
Before the blast, Lebanon was already facing an economic crisis, with widespread discontentment towards the ruling class. The explosion only worsened its problems, triggering widespread protests across Beirut. Protestors stormed government ministries and called for politicians to resign over their apparent negligence which had allowed the incident to happen.
With the destruction of a key logistics hub, widespread civil unrest and a healthcare system crippled by the pandemic, Beirut’s future hangs in the balance.