Lebanon: How negligence led to explosion in Beirut that killed over 150 people

Updated: 09 August, 2020 08:29 IST | Sherlin Rajan
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    A massive explosion rocked Beirut on August 4, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. It was the worst single explosion to strike Lebanon, a country whose history is filled with destruction, from a 1975-1990 civil war, conflicts with Israel and periodic terrorist attacks.

    In picture: A combo of satellite images of the port of Beirut and the surrounding area in Lebanon. The top image was taken on May 31, 2020, and the bottom was taken on Wednesday, a day after the explosion, that shows the destruction following the massive blast.

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    The blast, that killed 154 people, injured more than 5,000 and rendered over 3,00,000 homeless, struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany's geosciences center GFZ, and was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers across the Mediterranean.

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    The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already reeling under coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic and financial crisis. For hours after the explosion, ambulances rushed in from around the country to carry away the wounded. According to Beirut's governor, the blasts have caused an estimated $10-15 billion worth of damage. 


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    Hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies, and generators to keep their lights on. For blocks around the port, bloodied residents staggered through streets lined with overturned cars and littered with rubble from shattered buildings. Windows and doors were blown out kilometres away, including at the city's only international airport. Army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

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    Five Indians suffered minor injuries in the explosion, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said on Thursday. He also said that India has sought from the Lebanese government an assessment of damage caused by the blast, based on which it will decide on the nature of assistance it will extend to the West Asian country.

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    Videos showed what appeared to be a fire erupting nearby just before, and local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering the more massive explosion.

    In picture: A damaged building after the blast.

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    Primary information revealed that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored since 2014 in the port's warehouse caused the explosions. It was stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

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    Meanwhile, international aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon's leaders struggled to deal with the shocking aftermath of the blast, crippled by an economic crisis and facing a public that blames chronic mismanagement and corruption among the ruling elite for the disaster.

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    French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beirut on Thursday to express support for Lebanon. France and other countries have sent emergency aid and search-and-rescue teams.

    In picture: French President Emmanuel Macron visits a devastated street of Beirut.

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    Investigators probing the deadly blast is focusing on how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, known to be a highly explosive chemical used in agricultural fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it, while the government ordered house arrest of several port officials.

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    Fuelling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed that the head of the customs department Badri Daher had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.

    In picture: Rescuers searching for survivors in Beirut after the explosion.

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    Badri Daher confirmed to the local LBC TV channel that there were five or six such letters to the judiciary between 2016 and 2017. He said his predecessor also pleaded with the judiciary to issue orders to export the explosive materials 'because of how dangerous they are' to the port and staff there.

    In picture: Workers carry a broken door inside a church in Beirut which was heavily damaged by the explosion.

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    The UN human rights office is calling for an independent investigation into the Beirut explosion, insisting that 'victims' calls for accountability must be heard'. Spokesman Rupert Colville of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited the need for the international community to 'step up' to help Lebanon with a quick response and sustained engagement.

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    The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been scrambling to deploy $1.7 million worth of personal protective equipment to Beirut after 17 containers filled with supplies for the COVID-19 response were destroyed in the massive explosion.

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    Dr. Rick Brennan, WHO's emergencies director for the eastern Mediterranean, expressed concerns that the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon could now get worse in the aftermath of the blast.

    In picture: Rescuers and civil defence search through the debris at Beirut port's silo.

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    Brennan said the 'huge volume' of supplies from a regional WHO hub will be needed to replace lost COVID-19 gear like aprons, gloves, masks and respirators. They are expected to reach via a 'phased series of flights' over the next week with the first coming in the next two to three days.

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    Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied his group's involvement in the explosion and said that it reveals nepotism and corruption that can't be ignored in Lebanon and that those responsible should be brought to justice.

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    Senior officials from the Middle East and Europe started arriving in Lebanon on Saturday in a show of solidarity with the country. The visits by the secretary-general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and European Council president Charles Michel came as the country braced for large anti-government protests amid popular anger against Lebanon's political leadership.

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    Meanwhile, protests have erupted in Beirut as thousands of people were pouring into the parliament and the city main square on Saturday, where they had set up symbolic nooses to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for the blast.

    In picture: Debris litters the floor of the Lebanese Parliament hemicycle in the central district of Beirut.

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    The army issued a statement reminding the protesters to act peacefully and abstain from closing roads or attacking public or private property. Police also issued a statement after the protests began, urging people to act 'in a civilized way far away from violence'.

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About The Gallery

On August 4, a massive explosion rocked Lebanon's capital city Beirut, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. With the death toll rising every day, 154 people have been confirmed dead in the blast so far. Initial probes found that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored since 2014 in the port's warehouse, caused the explosion that left a trail of destruction for miles around the capital city. (Pictures/AFP, AP)

First Published: 09 August, 2020 09:00 IST