Two enormous explosions rocked Beirut’s port on Tuesday, killing at least 27 people and wounding thousands, shaking distant buildings and leaving the Lebanese capital in fear and chaos.
The deafening second blast sent an enormous orange fireball into the sky, flattened the harbourside and sent a tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city, shattering windows kilometres away.
Bloodied casualties stumbled among debris and burning buildings across central Beirut as Health Minister Hamad Hassan reported an initial estimated toll of 27 dead and 2,500 injured, calling it “a disaster in every sense of the word”.
A soldier at the port told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground.”
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Relatives of people who worked inside the blast zone gathered at a security cordon as they scrambled for news of their loved ones.
“Ambulances are still lifting the dead,” the soldier said.
The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away.
Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades, said it was “like an atomic bomb”.
“I’ve experienced everything, but nothing like this before,” even during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, she said.
“All the buildings around here have collapsed. I’m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark.”
The country’s Red Cross reported “hundreds of wounded” and called for urgent blood donations.
The cause of the explosions was not immediately known but a top official, General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, said confiscated explosive materials had been stored at the city’s port.
“It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material,” he said.
An Israeli government who requested anonymity told AFP: “Israel had nothing to do with the incident.”
Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130-metre (420 foot)-long grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone.
Retired US nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer wrote on Twitter that the “red cloud” of the massive blast was “very likely ammonium nitrate”, a common agricultural fertiliser that is a highly explosive compound.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun called for “urgent” defence council talks, while Prime Minister Hasan Diab declared Wednesday a day of mourning.
‘We saw the mushroom’
AFP video footage of the aftermath of the blasts showed areas of near-complete devastation, with cars flipped onto their roofs like children’s toys, and warehouses flattened.
Soldiers tried to clear the streets of dazed civilians, some of them drenched from head to toe in their own blood.
Volunteers led stunned survivors away to seek medical help, using their shirts as makeshift bandages to staunch deep gashes on their faces and bodies.
“We heard an explosion, then we saw the mushroom,” said a Beirut resident who witnessed the second, deafening explosion from her balcony in the city’s Mansourieh district.
“The force of the blast threw us backwards into the apartment.”
An AFP correspondent at the scene minutes after the blast said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked.
Outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children.
A huge blaze sent up black smoke from the port area, as helicopters dumped water on burning buildings. A ship moored off the port was on fire.
The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks with wailing sirens and relatives of workers who had been inside.
‘Like an earthquake’
Hundreds immediately shared their shock and grief on social media.
“Buildings are shaking,” tweeted one resident, while another wrote: “An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away.”
Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling.
The explosions hit a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanon’s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment.
The explosions also came three days before a UN tribunal’s verdict on the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge 2005 truck bomb attack.
Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in The Hague over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.
A woman in the city centre Tuesday told AFP the blast “felt like an earthquake” and “bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005”.