Disaster struck the port city of Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday as a massive explosion levelled buildings and shook the entire city, killing at least 113 people and injuring more than 4,000 others. The explosion is officially said to be caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which were stored unsafely in a warehouse and set off by a fire at the city’s port that started just before 3pm GMT (11pm Wednesday in Malaysia).
The shockwaves were felt 240km away on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and shattered glass windows several kilometres away. As many as 300,000 people have been left homeless, according to Beirut’s governor Marwan Aboud.
The explosion comes in the wake of rising COVID-19 infections, which left hospitals already struggling to cope, and now faced with treating thousands of injured people.
Lebanon’s economy has also taken a hard toll, as the country imports most of its food. Large quantities of grain stored in the port have been destroyed, causing fears of widespread food insecurity to come. Its government has announced that it will release 100 billion lira (RM277.5 million) in emergency funds. However, the explosion’s economic impact is expected to be long-lasting.
The Lebanese government has declared a two-week state of emergency. Security forces have sealed off a wide area around the blast site, and rescuers are searching for bodies and survivors.
Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Lebanon’s health sector was short of beds and lacked the equipment necessary to treat the injured and care for patients in critical condition. The St George Hospital near the site of the explosion was badly damaged, with several members of staff killed.
Three Beirut hospitals are closed and two others are only partially operational, according to the World Health Organization. The body has said it will airlift medical supplies to Lebanon.
Three French planes are due to arrive carrying 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic equipped to treat 500 people, followed by a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron.
The EU is sending 100 firefighters with vehicles, dogs and equipment. Russia is sending five planes carrying rescuers, doctors and equipment.
Nuclear fears, and the true cause of the explosion
Sending up a mushroom cloud terrifyingly reminiscent of the two atomic bombs that struck Japan towards the end of World War Two, news of the explosion sparked panic that the city had been struck by a nuclear attack.
However, nuclear weapon experts quickly nixed the notion, as some of the many videos of the explosion now shared on social media show small flashes of light and sounds distinctive to fireworks.
Vipin Narang, who studies nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responded quickly to a tweet alleging nuclear attack. “I study nuclear weapons. It is not,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Mushroom clouds are not unique to nuclear bombs. According to Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who researches the human history of nuclear weapons, such blast-wave clouds, or “Wilson Clouds”, are made when humid air gets compressed and causes the water in it to condense.
The explosion is believed to be equivalent to that of around 240 tonnes of TNT, or about 10 times as large as the United States military’s “mother of all bombs” is capable of unleashing. By contrast, Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” atomic bomb was about 1,000 times more powerful.
The explosion is also believed to be larger than the 1947 Texas City Disaster, in which a consignment of 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate similarly exploded, killing nearly 500 people and creating a 4.5m tidal wave.
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser, because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives. Not an explosive on its own, the chemical rather acts as an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to – and intensifying – a fire.
According to British former intelligence officer Philip Ingram, ammonium nitrate is relatively safe when safely stored, but can cause an explosion in confined spaces and when contaminated with items such as fuel oil.
Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi stated that the ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014. The chemicals arrived on a Moldovan-flagged ship, the Rhosus, which entered Beirut after suffering technical problems during its voyage from Georgia to Mozambique, according to Shiparrested.com, which deals with shipping-related legal cases. The Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and abandoned by its owners shortly afterwards. Its cargo was then removed and stored in a port warehouse for “safety reasons”, according to the report.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Twitter that it was “unacceptable” that so much explosive material had been stored in a warehouse for six years without sufficient safety measures, and vowed that those responsible would face the “harshest punishments”.
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