Lebanese rescue workers dug through the mangled wreckage of buildings on Wednesday looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000.
Officials said the toll was expected to rise after Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material.
The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.
It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.
President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He called it “unacceptable”.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. Ordinary Lebanese blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that has plunged Lebanon into a financial crisis.
“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.”
The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. “We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said.
The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during the Tuesday afternoon rush hour.
The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.
Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.
“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake,” said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.
Like others, he blamed the political elite. “We already have a financial economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will they compensate for the losses? Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones,” he said.
Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.
The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political change in Lebanon, also offered help. The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialized search and rescue teams.
“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.
For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had been rebuilt. Post-war reconstruction and political corruption mired Lebanon in huge debts.
“With this blast they took us back to the years of war … Our leaders are in a coma,” said Ali Abdulwahed, 46, a manager at Café de l’Etoile, a restaurant next to parliament.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised accountability, saying: “Those responsible will pay the price”.
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.
The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people. Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.
Lebanon’s main grain silo at the port was destroyed, leaving the nation with less than a month’s wheat reserves.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which moved to another part of the city after a huge bomb attack struck its originally waterfront embassy in 1983, warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the port blast.
The explosion came three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on another part of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.
Reporting by Ayat Basma, Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis; Writing by Dominic Evans, Ghaida Ghantous, Tom Perry; Editing by Edmund Blair