An incredible explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, producing a massive plume of pink smoke and a horrific shockwave that leveled buildings, left thousands hurt, and could be felt as far as 150 miles away. At least 135 people were killed in the blast, which produced an apocalyptic scene of shattered glass and and twisted metal, and another 5,000 injured. Many are still missing and feared trapped among the rubble.
Another 300,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the explosion. “Half of Beirut’s population have homes that are unliveable for the foreseeable future — for the next two weeks,” Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud told Jordan’s Al Mamlaka. Many schools, hospitals, and individuals offered their homes up to those in need of a place to stay. According to a State department official who spoke with ABC News, one American was killed in the blast.
The explosion occurred in a port area of the Lebanese capital around 6 p.m. local time. Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab has stated that the explosion was caused by a fire in a warehouse that held an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored there since 2013, when it was confiscated from a cargo shop. In the days since the blast, more has come out about how the volatile substance found its way to the Beirut port six years ago. At the time, a Russian cargo ship names the Rhosus was carrying the cargo to Mozambique. Beset by financial and structural problems — “a small hole in its hull that meant water had to be constantly pumped out,” the Times reports — the ship was abandoned in Beirut by the Russian businessman who leased it.
Its presence at the port was not a secret. According to CNN and the Times, Lebanese customs officials made multiple attempts to have the ammonium nitrate removed in 2014 and 2015. Their pleas were ignored by the country’s courts.
Ammonium nitrate is used in making dynamite and was a key component of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It is uncommon, however, for the chemical compound to ignite on its own, and initial reports that a store of fireworks caused the initial spark appear to be correct.
Diab insisted that the government will get to the bottom of what happened. “As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” he told reporters. Already, the government has ordered several port officials to be placed under house arrest amid its investigation.
Two days after the explosion, the extent of the damage it caused it becoming clearer. Local officials have estimated that as much a $5 billion in damage has been caused by the explosion, which registered as the equivalent of magnitude earthquake on seismographs.
International help has begun pouring into Lebanon, with Australia, Germany, and France, among other countries, pledging support. French president Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beirut Thursday, telling a crowd of people, “I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here.” Angry residents chanted slogans about “Revolution” and “the fall of regime.”
“What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” Macron said.
The explosion comes at a strained time in Lebanon, which is facing its worst economic crisis in decades with massive unemployment, a tanking currency, and a poverty rate above 50 percent. Prior to the explosion, residents of Beirut faced frequent power outages and soaring food prices. Pictures of the explosion appeared to show damage to the city’s largest grain elevator.
Rarely helpful in disaster circumstances, President Trump on Tuesday spread misinformation about the blast. In direct contradiction of reports from Lebanese officials, he said that the explosion was caused by a “bomb of some kind” and that he had conversations with “great generals” who “seemed to feel” it was an attack. CNN reported Wednesday that military officials did not know what Trump was talking about:
One official said that if there were indications anyone in the region pulled something off of this scale, it would trigger automatic increases in force protection for US troops and assets in the region – if for no other reason than worry about retribution attacks.
That official noted that none of that has happened so far.
Videos of the explosion and the aftermath quickly appeared on social media.