Beirut was devastated Tuesday by a blast originating at a warehouse in the city’s port that officials said contained a stockpile of ammonium nitrate.
Lots of social media footage, from vantage points in the city and on the water, showed the warehouse on fire before the huge explosion, which sent a giant cloud of red smoke into the air and pummeled blocks with the shock wave.
Dozens were killed and at least a few thousand were injured, overwhelming hospitals already battling the coronavirus pandemic. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored at the warehouse for six years without proper safety measures. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 used about two tons of ammonium nitrate, and the 1947 explosion in the Port of Texas City that killed at least 581 people involved 2,200 tons of ammonium nitrate.
“I’ve met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was not a — some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event,” President Trump told reporters at an early evening press conference. “This was a — seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Three Pentagon officials told CNN that there was no indication that the explosion was an attack, and Lebanese officials reportedly raised concerns about Trump’s characterization with the State Department.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut urged citizens to contact their loved ones and post status updates on social media if able. “There are reports of toxic gases released in the explosion so all in the area should stay indoors and wear masks if available,” said the message to U.S. citizens.
“We are closely monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this tragedy. 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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “We understand that the Government of Lebanon continues to investigate its cause and look forward to the outcome of those efforts.”
In 2013, the cargo ship M/V Rhosus was en route from Georgia to Mozambique when it stopped in Beirut. The ship was detained after inspection in port, with a Russian and Ukrainian crew who were eventually allowed to disembark and return home on humanitarian grounds given the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on the ship. Reports from then indicate that the ship’s Russian owner, living in Cyprus, abandoned the ship and port officials moved the cargo into a warehouse.
The blast damaged buildings as far as six miles away and reportedly leveled the port. This video was taken during the initial fire and early, smaller explosions:
This was followed by the main blast:
UPDATE 8/7/20: The cause of the fire that sparked the ammonium nitrate blast is still under investigation. Lebanese President Michel Aoun told reporters today that either negligence or “external intervention” such as a missile or bomb could have started the blaze at the warehouse. Aoun said France has been asked for satellite images to determine whether any planes or projectiles could have been in the area at the time. Meanwhile, Aoun rejected a United Nations call for an international investigation, and port officials have been put under house arrest.
The death toll is more than 150 as recovery operations continue, with more than 5,000 people wounded.