Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

‘They became ashes’: at least 100 killed in massive explosion at Beirut port

Thousands were wounded in the apparent accident, which sent shockwaves across the city, officials said

A huge explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and wounding thousands in the port area of the Lebanese capital, the country’s health minister said.

The blast, felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, shattered windows and caused buildings to collapse in the area as a huge pink-hued mushroom cloud rose into the sky.

"It is a disaster in every sense of the word," Health Minister Hamad Hasan said while visiting a hospital in Beirut.

Mr Hasan said nearly 4,000 people were injured in the blast.

A civil defence official at the scene of the blast said his men had moved dozens of people to hospitals and that there were still bodies inside the port, many of them under debris.

Mr Hasan said the blast had caused a "very high number of injuries".

The country’s Red Cross, which appealed for blood donations, said there were hundreds of casualties.

The cause of the blast has not been confirmed but officials indicated an accident involving chemicals.

Lebanon's internal security chief, Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, said authorities confiscated a large amount of sodium nitrate, which was supposed to have been destroyed months ago.

Gen Ibrahim said the chemicals caught alight, causing the huge second blast.

“It was a big explosion and then my house ceiling came down and all the windows were wrecked,” a journalist who lives in the Gemmayze area told The National.

“I fell down on the floor and had to dig myself out of the apartment.”

Supermarket manager Bahij, 47, was driving in the Karantina area of the city, close to the blast site, when he was suddenly blown from the car, causing injuries to his head and hands.

“This is insane. It is the first time I've come across such a massive explosion. I don’t know what it is,” he said.

“I only remember myself on the pavement being carried and attended to by two bystanders.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab appealed for international help after the “catastrophe”.

Mr Diab said there would be a full investigation “to reveal facts regarding this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014".

He said “those responsible will pay the price for what happened today".

Mr Diab earlier met heads of the Lebanese security agencies, concerned ministries and other senior officials for an emergency discussion on dealing with the fallout from the blast.

The international community was quick to express solidarity with Lebanon. France, Iran and the US all offered assistance.

Israel, which last fought a war in Lebanon with Hezbollah in 2006, offered the Lebanese government "medical humanitarian aid", its Defence Ministry said.

Hundreds of people wandered the streets in varying states of disarray late into the evening, many clutching elderly relatives and children injured by flying glass and debris.

The chaos was heightened by a lack of information on what caused the explosion.

Video on social media showed a smaller explosion, which then set off a larger blast.

They were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres away.

"I was walking back home, me and my friend, in Hamra Street," said Lynn Darraj, 15, a pupil at Ali Ben Abi Taleb School in Beirut.

"Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a very, very strong explosion and the sky became filled with pink gas.

"It became all pink and the glass was flying, and there wasn't a single place left unshattered.

"There was a man who let us inside his shop and he hid us inside. And there were children crying."

"It was horrific. We are used to seeing this in movies, not in real life. Old people, young people, all got burnt in the explosion. They became ashes."

Photos of the aftermath of the explosions showed huge damage to the city’s port wheat silos, a landmark of Beirut.

The port was rebuilt and expanded after the 1990 civil war, under plans envisaged by the late Lebanese statesman, Rafik Hariri, and new cranes installed to handle the biggest container ships.

But corruption has been a main impediment to the port resuming its prior role as a regional centre, businessmen said.

A senior Red Cross official told The National that more than 300 people were taken to the American University of Beirut Medical Centre, filling it and other major hospitals in Beirut.

For those less seriously injured, it was first aid kits and the kindness of others.

Marie, 86, sat on the street in the Gemmayze area having her wounds tended to.

She lives on the third floor of a nearby building and was standing near the window when it shattered from the force of the blast, its glass slicing her skin.

“I left my flat two hours ago and took my first aid kit with me to help people,” Dr Michael Aoun, 24, said while treating Marie.

“This lady had over a dozen cuts all over her body. She was alone when I found her.”

Footage of the aftermath shared on social media seemed to show bodies strewn on the ground in the port area.

The blast and huge damage it caused comes as Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades while trying to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Many have already begun to discuss how the poverty-stricken nation will rebuild given its financial predicament. Officials are negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out.

Members of the Lebanese diaspora living around the world expressed fear for their families.

Nada, a Lebanese business executive living in Switzerland, said she reached her mother by phone.

“She is shocked as all of the windows broke in her apartment but, alhamdulillah, she is fine,” Nada told The National.

Nada’s mother lives in district of Mar Elias in West Beirut.

Updated: August 5, 2020 09:37 AM

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