The Slatest

The Explosion’s Toll on Beirut Is Staggering

Bombed out cars and buildings.
A view of the partially destroyed Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael on Wednesday. Patrick Baz/Getty Images

Update, Aug. 5, 2020, at 4:45 a.m.: The death toll crept past 100 and the number of injured stretched to 4,000 the morning after a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, destroying a portion of the city and inflicting sweeping damage for miles. Without power in the city through the night, emergency workers struggled to respond, digging through rubble for survivors.

From the White House on Tuesday, President Donald Trump wildly speculated the explosion was an “attack.” Lebanese authorities, however, continued to warn against labeling Tuesday’s deadly explosion an attack, as more details about the probable cause of the blast became clearer. The head of Lebanon’s security services, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, said the explosion was detonated by 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored at the blast site. Officials say the chemical, often used in fertilizer and homemade bombs, had been sitting in a storage facility in the port area of the city for as long as six years after being confiscated by the government from a cargo ship in 2014. Ibrahim said that there is also an active investigation into whether the explosion was intentionally set.

Overnight in Beirut, the devastation wrought by the blast was even more stark. “The sound of mountains of glass being swept from balconies and cascading onto roads was a soundtrack to an eerie, fitful night,” the Guardian reported. “Ambulances wailed. Building guards sat silently in the dark on plastic chairs. There was nothing much to safeguard anymore, nor much of a will to do so.” The explosion itself was powerful enough to be felt more than 150 miles away and razed entire sections of the city, including portions of the nearby business district. The buildings that managed to survive and remain standing “looked as if they had been skinned, leaving only hulking skeletons,” according to the New York Times.

Exacerbating the human toll was the damage done to the city’s medical infrastructure. At least four hospitals were reportedly so damaged that they were unable to accept patients. Some were forced to evacuate. It is also reported that a medical warehouse housing much of the country’s vaccine supply was also destroyed in the blast. The facility was located a half-mile from the blast site and contained hundreds of thousands of vaccines and medications. Grain silos at the port storing as much as 85 percent of the country’s grain were also contaminated creating the possibility of a food shortage.

Original post: The Lebanese capital, Beirut, was the site of a massive explosion on Tuesday, which authorities say was the result of an industrial accident involving fireworks. Journalists on the ground describe scenes of panic and chaos. Reuters reports that officials say 10 people were killed, though that number is likely to rise.

Videos from the scene appear to show an initial blast at the city’s port followed by a much larger one causing a mushroom cloud over the city:

The blast was reportedly felt miles away, filling the streets with debris and breaking windows:

Given Beirut’s recent history, there was a lot of initial speculation on social media that the explosion was caused by terrorism. Lebanon was already on edge with a verdict expected later this week in the U.N.-backed trial for four Hezbollah members accused of the 2005 car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. There’s also been recent fighting between Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group, and Israel on both the Israel-Lebanon border and in Syria.

But Lebanon’s state media says that terrorism was not involved and that the disaster was caused by a fire at a warehouse for firecrackers. Some videos do show what look like fireworks or firecrackers exploding shortly before the second blast:

This might seem like a far-fetched explanation, but fireworks explosions can be huge. One in the Netherlands in 2000 killed 23 people and destroyed 400 homes. An explosion at a fireworks market near Mexico City killed 31 people in 2016. It’s also possible that another nearby industrial facility was ignited by the initial blast. Freelance journalist Abby Sewell quotes a Lebanese army source saying that the second blast happened after fire spread to a “nitrate warehouse”—the type of facility that caused the massive 2015 explosion at the port of Tianjin, China.

Even if the Beirut explosion was an accident, it’s still fair to blame Lebanon’s sociopolitical situation for worsening the damage. The country is in the midst of a crippling and unprecedented economic crisis, with hyperinflation, collapsing infrastructure, and shortages of everything from food to electricity, to fuel, to medicine. Hospitals have been struggling to stay open amid the COVID-19 epidemic. The crisis has generally been blamed on years of official corruption and mismanagement. This led to massive protests last year, but the country’s fractured and sectarian divided political class has been unable to enact the kind of reforms needed to either address the crisis or attract international aid.

This kind of chaos not only makes industrial accidents more likely—it will make caring for the wounded and repairing the damage that much more difficult.

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