What we know of the Beirut explosion in Lebanon so far

After a horrific blast in Beirut on 4 August that killed at least 200 people and wounded about 5,000 others, the Lebanese cabinet has resigned amid increasing public outrage.

What happened over there?

The tragedy was followed by a massive fire on the north Mediterranean coast of the capital, at the Port of Beirut. Billowing from Warehouse 12, next to the massive grain silos of the port, could be seen in videos shared on social media white smoke.

The warehouse ‘s roof caught alight just after 18:00 (15:00 GMT) and there was a massive initial explosion, followed by a number of smaller explosions that some witnesses said sounded like fireworks going off.

Approximately 30 seconds later a massive explosion occurred that sent a mushroom cloud into the air and a supersonic blastwave radiating across the area.

The blast wave levelled buildings along the harbor, causing significant damage to most of the rest of the capital, home to two million residents. Hospitals soon became exhausted.

“What we are seeing is a major tragedy,” said George Kettani, president of the Lebanese Red Cross. “Everywhere there are casualties and murders.”

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated that as many as 300,000 people had briefly been left homeless and that total damages could hit $10-15 billion (£ 8-11 billion).

How big was the explosion?

The explosion devastated the surrounding area at the dockside, forming a crater about 140 m (460 ft) deep that filled with seawater.

The warehouse where the initial fire and explosions were witnessed was obliterated, and severely destroyed an adjacent grain silo.

In the port city, satellite photos display total destruction, with one ship seemingly blown out of the water and on the dockside.

The shockwave of the blast ripped windows out at the passenger terminal at Beirut International Airport, some 9 km (5 miles ) away from the port.

The boom was also felt as far as Cyprus, some 200 km across the Mediterranean Sea, and United States Geological Survey seismologists said it was the equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake.

Based on a film analysis, a team from Sheffield University determined that the blast was equivalent to 1,000 to 1,500 tons of TNT-around a quarter of the atom bomb ‘s size dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

“Regardless of the exact scale of the bomb, this is certainly one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history, much bigger than any conventional weapon,” said Professor Andy Tyas, a blast safety engineering expert.

What was the cause in Lebanon?

Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, blamed the detonation on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate he said had been unsafely stored at a port warehouse.

A similar quantity of the chemicals arrived on a cargo ship flagged by Moldova, the MV Rhosus, which was docked in Beirut in 2013 after experiencing technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.

According to Shiparrested.com, the Rhosus was checked, barred from leaving, and was abandoned by its owners shortly afterward. According to a court order, his cargo was moved to Warehouse 12, which would have been disposed of or resold.

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white material widely used for organic fertilizer as a source of nitrogen. Yet fuel oils can also be mixed to produce an explosive used in the mining and construction industries. Activists have in the past made explosives with it.

Experts claim when treated properly, the ammonium nitrate is fairly safe. When, though, you have a significant amount of material lying around for a long time, it tends to deteriorate.

“The only concern is that it can accumulate little pieces of moisture over time and eventually transform into a massive rock,” Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London, told the BBC NEWS. This makes it riskier as the chemical reaction would be even more powerful once a fire hits it.

Ammonium nitrate has been related to fatal injuries in manufacturing. A ship carrying 2,000 tons of the chemical exploded in Texas in 1947 killing 581 people.

The ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut seems to have been caused by a candle.

Lebanese broadcaster LBCI and news agency Reuters cited sources as saying that the fire was caused by welding work carried out at a hole in Warehouse 12.

The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, reported that prior to the fire, work was carried out at the warehouse entrance.

“We were told by State Security to repair a factory door and we did it at midday but I don’t have any idea what happened in the afternoon,” CNN quoted him as telling OTV.

Who were the victims in the Beirut explosion?

More than 200 people were killed, including at the port and further afield.

Firefighter Sahar Fares has been a first responder to the blast scene. In a post on Instagram, her fiance, Gilbert Quraan, mourned her, saying his heart was burning with the loss. Sahar and seven male colleagues showed a photo shared on social media, all of whom are said to have died.

Not only were they the rescue personnel who lost their life during the fire. At least five nurses have also died according to a list of confirmed deaths published by the Ministry of Health.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in her apartment that a female diplomat from the German embassy had died.

There are also claims that one American and two Egyptians were killed in the explosion, while a two year old Australian boy was reported dead.

Abou Merhi, a cruise ship operator based in Lebanon, said two people killed, and seven were injured when the explosion seriously destroyed their Orient Queen cabin.

Beirut ‘s governor has said hundreds of people are still missing, including many former workers.

Who is to blame?

President Aoun vowed a clear blast inquiry, and so far at least 20 people have been arrested.

Prime Minister Diab described the conditions leading to the blast as “unacceptable” but proposed resignation from his government six days later. Yet he denied accepting responsibility for the explosion and blamed the powerful political class of the world instead.

Mr. Koraytem and Lebanese Customs Director-General Badri Daher have consistently dismissed their concerns about the risk faced by the stored ammonium nitrate and demands for it to be recalled.

Records circulating online appeared to indicate that, from 2014 to 2017, customs officials sent letters to the judiciary requesting advice at least six times.

Yet investigative journalist Riyad Qobaissi claims that these letters did not meet the correct protocols and that customs officials merely keep resending the same letters in response to a order for further information from the judge.

The government also ordered port officials who oversaw the ammonium nitrate mining to be placed under house arrest before the inquiry is concluded.

Furthermore, Lebanon’s public works minister told Al Jazeera he found out about the existence of ammonium nitrate in July and talked to the port’s general manager just two days prior to the blast.

“No minister knows what’s in the hangars or tanks, so it’s not my job to ask,” said to the channel Michael Najjar, who’s been in his post for six months.

Until now, however, President Aoun has denied the idea of any foreign probe and indicated that “remote intervention by a missile or bomb or other operation” may have contributed to the explosion, too.

Many Lebanese were unimpressed with the assurances of stability and responsibility made by the government and there were clashes between demonstrators and police.

Shortly after the government’s dismissal, the rage and marches persisted, with many citizens seeing last week’s deadly blast as the tragic product of years of systemic injustice and mismanagement.

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