A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, destroying most of city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
The blast struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences center GFZ, and it was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.
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 sodium nitrate. Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange-colored cloud like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended his deepest condolences to the people of Beirut and said the United States is closely monitoring the situation. ‘Our team in Beirut has reported to me the extensive damage to a city and a people that I hold dear, an additional challenge in a time of already deep crisis,’ Pompeo said in a written statement.
Health Minister Hassan Hamad said emergency teams streamed in from across Lebanon to help, and the injured had to be taken to hospitals outside the capital. Hamad added that hospitals were barely coping and offers of aid were pouring in from Arab states and friends of Lebanon.
Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, broke into tears as he toured the site. Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed that ‘those responsible will pay.’
Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire then appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and generating a shock wave.
One of Israel’s top bomb experts, Boaz Hayoun, said fireworks could have been a factor setting off the bigger blast. ‘Before the big explosion, … in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles’.
Some of those injured lay on the ground at the port, Associated Press staff at the scene said. A civil defense official said there were still bodies inside the port, many under debris.
The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse from the financial crisis and the coronavirus restrictions. Many have lost jobs, while the worth of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged in value against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, said one of its ships in the port was damaged and a number of its peacekeepers were injured.
It was reminiscent of 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.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet that his country was sending aid. Israel offered emergency assistance through international intermediaries, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, also said it was ready to help.