Rescuers yesterday searched for survivors in Beirut after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighborhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.
The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt as far away as Cyprus, about 240km to the northwest.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud described the explosion as “an apocalyptic situation” that he estimated might have made 300,000 people temporarily homeless and would cost the country in excess of US$3 billion.
The scale of the destruction was such that the Lebanese capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.
“A massacre. I saw people screaming, covered in blood, homes broken, glass shattered, roads that look like Hiroshima or like a tsunami hit,” said Elie Zakaria, a resident of a neighborhood close to the port.
In those areas, the amount of destruction caused by the long years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 was achieved in a second by a blast that leveled buildings within a radius of several hundred meters.
A resident of Mar Mikhail, one of the most affected neighborhoods, said she saw bodies strewn in the middle of the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast.
Many people were watching and filming with their phones after an earlier and smaller explosion was heard in the port and ignited a fire.
The resulting footage, which was widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shockwave engulfing everything around it.
The mushroom-shaped explosion — which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a magnitude 3.3 quake — and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.
“The Apocalypse” read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past, but none quite this big.
The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances at the port that led to the explosion as “unacceptable” and vowed to investigate.
“Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Diab said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
He said that the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment.”
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence,” saying nothing was done” by committees and judges to order the removal of hazardous material.
The Cabinet yesterday agreed to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, ministerial sources said.
It was not clear how many officials would be included or their seniority level.
The army would oversee the house arrest until responsibility is determined for Tuesday’s massive explosion, the sources said.
The rescue effort was slowed overnight on Tuesday by the lack of electricity, which was already intermittent at best before the blast.
Security forces sealed off a huge area around the blast site, searching for bodies and survivors under the rubble of leveled buildings while rescue boats scoured the waters off the coast.
“We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years, but this is something else,” said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer, said from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts, despite being 500m from the seat of the blast.
“We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse, but now I don’t know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,” he said.
The Red Cross said yesterday that more than 100 deaths had been confirmed.
It also reported about 4,000 people injured, prompting fears that the death toll could rise significantly.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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