Nation & World

What we know about the Beirut explosions

Extensive damage shows at the site of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP
Extensive damage shows at the site of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Explosions in Beirut left more than 100 people dead and more than 4,000 injured Tuesday, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Across Lebanon’s capital, people captured the stunning moment on video, creating a patchwork collage of footage documenting the disaster as it unfolded. Authorities are investigating the blasts, which reduced a section of the city to rubble.

Here’s what we know so far.

Q: What happened?

A: On Tuesday around 6 p.m. local time, at least one initial explosion at a warehouse in the port area of Beirut ignited a fire, apparently triggering a second, far stronger blast that sent a shock wave across the city.

A mushroom cloud of red-tinged smoke, visible from afar, billowed above the site of blasts.

The impact could be felt more than 100 miles away in the Mediterranean, but it was strongest in the popular Beirut neighborhoods near the port, lined with apartments, clubs and restaurants. The area was devastated by the explosions, with many buildings flattened.

The blast caused damage miles away, including at Beirut’s airport, south of downtown. Several foreign diplomatic missions, including the Norwegian and German embassies, were also affected.

The stream of injured strained the capacity of hospitals, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

In the aftermath of the explosions, concerns also emerged over the release of potential toxins into the air.

Q: What caused the explosions?

A: The exact cause of the blasts remains to be determined definitively.

Mohammed Fahmi, the Lebanese interior minister, said the devastation was probably caused by the explosion of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Via a spokesman, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said several thousand tons of the chemical had improperly been stored for the past six years.

“It is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent on this issue,” he said.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday said the blasts were a “terrible attack,” but no evidence has yet emerged that the explosions were set off on purpose.

U.S. military officials said they were still examining the incident.

Q: What is ammonium nitrate?

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

A: The chemical easily forms explosive mixtures. It is commonly used in fertilizer - and in homemade explosives.

It is not explosive by itself but becomes dangerous when it is contaminated with other substances, such as oil, Gabriel da Silva of the University of Melbourne told the Guardian.

“In the presence of heat, such a mixture can easily lead to catastrophic outcomes. The scale here suggests large quantities were involved,” said Roger W. Read, an honorary associate professor at University of New South Wales School of Chemistry, according to the Science Media Center.

Q: How have other countries responded?

A: After the blasts, many countries issued statements of support for Lebanon and pledged to help the country recover from with the disaster.

“The pandemic already meant that hospitals are overwhelmed, and front-line workers are exhausted,” Yukie Mokuo, the Lebanon Representative for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children agency, said in a statement Wednesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would visit the country Thursday and send three planes with medical equipment and professionals on Wednesday. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the country stood “alongside Lebanon,” a former French protectorate. The two countries maintain close diplomatic and economic ties.

Other countries have offered aid. Planes from Kuwait landed in the Lebanese capital on Wednesday. Qatar, Jordan and Iran also offered to send medical aid and field hospitals to the site.

Neighboring Israel offered emergency assistance as well - through international intermediaries because the two countries are technically at war.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Russia pledged to send five planes full of medical aid and personnel, as well as coronavirus testing technology to Lebanon. Norway, Turkey, the Netherlands and Greece are also among the countries who have offered help.

Q: How might the explosions affect life in Lebanon?

A: Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab had earlier appealed for international support in response to what he called a “national tragedy.”

Lebanon descended into a severe economic crisis over the past year. As banks limited the distribution of dollars, the official currency spiraled into free fall and bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund stalled. Many Lebanese have blamed the country’s political elite - widely seen as corrupt and mired in rampant corruption - for the economic collapse. Major protests erupted late last year and have resumed in recent months.

Tuesday’s explosions could worsen the country’s economy as it faces the additional burden of a rising novel coronavirus cases. Lebanon has officially recorded more than 5,000 coronavirus infections and 65 deaths, with 177 new cases reported Monday.

After months of requests to stay home amid the pandemic, many people now find themselves homeless, forced to seek shelter among friends or relatives.

The mayor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, said Wednesday that up to 300,000 people may have been left temporarily without a place to live. Schools are expected to open as shelters for homeless residents.

Repairs could cost $5 billion.

The explosions could also threaten Lebanon’s food supply, as storage warehouses were destroyed. The import of medical supplies could also become more difficult.

“The health system was already struggling to respond to the mounting health needs,” the International Committee of the Red Cross tweeted on Wednesday. “Now it is totally overwhelmed.”

Q: Has anything like this happened before?

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

A: A dockside warehouse near a densely populated area. A stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored under dubious conditions. A blast that tore parts of a city apart. Angry demands for accountability. Videos uploaded to social media that stunned viewers around the world.

Although the exact cause of the Beirut blasts remains to be determined, they bear an undeniable resemblance to explosions that flattened parts of Tianjin, a Chinese port city, in 2015, killing over 170 people and injuring hundreds more.

At the time, Chinese investigators blamed the improper storage of chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. Unaware of the risks, firefighters tried to extinguish the initial fires but were themselves caught in a major subsequent blast.

Apocalyptic videos of the incident, shared on social media, mirror those recorded in Beirut on Tuesday.

Following the explosions, Chinese and international media outlets uncovered numerous factors believed to have led to the incident, including a lax enforcement of safety rules and a lack of efficient oversight. There were some signs on Wednesday that similar factors may have also contributed or led to the Beirut explosions. Speaking to Reuters, an official source said “inaction and negligence” were probably the cause of the blasts, according to preliminary results of ongoing probes.

The United States once experienced a major accidental ammonium nitrate blast. In 1947, a stockpile of the chemical exploded in the port of Texas City, Tex., triggering a 15-foot-high wave and leaving hundreds of people dead. At the time, the blast was attributed to 2,300 tons of the chemical.

- - -

Noack reported from Berlin and Mellen reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut and Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.