Lebanese struggle to cope with tragedy in aftermath of explosion

Countries around the world are pledging support after blast killed at least 100 people and wounded thousands.

Wednesday 05/08/2020
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after the massive explosion in Beirut, August 5.( AFP)
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after the massive explosion in Beirut, August 5.( AFP)

BEIRUT — Residents of Beirut awoke to a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port sent shockwaves across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 100 people and wounding thousands.

Countries around the world were pledging support to the tragedy-stricken Arab country, which faces the prospect of further tensions as the verdict of the UN-backed trial of four Hezbollah suspects in the 2005 murder of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected Friday. Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2km from the port.

The explosion, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 150 miles (240 kilometres) to the north-west.

Beirut explosion map

Smoke was still rising from the port, where huge mounds of grain gushed from hollowed-out silos. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.

An official with the Lebanese Red Cross said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded. The official, Georges Kettaneh, said the toll could rise further.

Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night. Many residents moved in with friends or relatives after their apartments were damaged and treated their own injuries because hospitals were overwhelmed.

It was unclear what caused the blast, which appeared to have been triggered by a fire and struck with the force of an earthquake. It was the most powerful explosion ever seen in the city, which was on the front lines of the 1975-1990 civil war and has endured conflicts with neighbouring Israel and periodic bombings and terror attacks. Officials in Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, said it had nothing to do with the Tuesday blast.

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its hospitals are confronting a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

Destroyed silo is seen amid the rubble and debris following yesterday’s blast at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, on August 5. (AFP)
Destroyed silo is seen amid the rubble and debris following yesterday’s blast at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, on August 5. (AFP)

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a local TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertiliser but can also be highly explosive. It was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2,180 kilograms (4,800 pounds) of fertiliser and fuel oil ripped through a federal building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more.

Most experts said there was no evidence for now the Beirut explosion was an attack. But US President Trump, quoting US generals, speculated that it “was a bomb of some kind.”

Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris.

In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defence workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.

The blast destroyed numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

 Members of the French Sécurité Civile rescue organisation arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport, in Paris, August 5, on their way to Beirut. (AP)

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation, saying: “We are witnessing a real catastrophe.” He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the disaster will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.

There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over 1 million Syrians amid that country’s yearslong war.

Drone footage shot Wednesday showed that the blast tore open a cluster of towering grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported.

Estimates suggest some 85% of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. However, he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more.

Criticism of the government was already rife on social media, where Lebanese users argued that a disaster of such magnitude could only strike in a state whose institutions are crippled by incompetence and corruption. Many hinted at the responsibility of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, which ensured de facto control of the port area. Beirut’s port and the customs authority are notoriously corrupt and under the thumb of the militia.

For now the focus is on coping with the tragedy. After the authorities appealed for help, several countries have pledged aid.

Arab and international aid in the form of emergency workers and medical personnel is heading to Lebanon.

In Tunisia, President Kais Saied decided Wednesday to send two military planes to Lebanon carrying food aid and medical supplies as well as medical personnel to participate in the treatment of the casualties.  One hundred of the injured in the blast will be treated in Tunisian hospitals, it was announced in Tunis.

Egypt has opened a field hospital in Beirut to receive the wounded. Jordan says a military field hospital including all necessary personnel will be dispatched, according to the Royal Court.

France says it is sending two planes with dozens of emergency workers, a mobile medical unit and 15 tons of aid. French President Emmanuel Macron’s office says the aid should allow for the treatment of some 500 victims.

French peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon have been helping since the explosions, Macron’s office said.

Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says Lebanon has accepted an offer to send a team of 37 rescuers with sniffer dogs to Beirut. Denmark says it is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, and Greece says it is ready to help Lebanese authorities “with all means at its disposal.”