Search is on for survivors after blast kills at least 135.
Rescue workers still struggling to treat thousands of people wounded in an enormous explosion that rocked Beirut turned their attention on Wednesday morning to the desperate search for survivors.
The blast, so powerful it could be felt more than 150 miles away in Cyprus, leveled whole sections of the city near the port of Beirut on Tuesday evening, leaving nothing but twisted metal and debris for blocks in Beirut’s downtown business district. It capsized a docked passenger ship, shattered windows miles away and registered on seismographs, shaking on the earth as strongly as a 3.3-magnitude earthquake.
The waterfront neighborhood, normally full of restaurants and nightclubs, was essentially flattened. A number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half were also ravaged.
Nearly all the windows along one popular commercial strip had been blown out and the street was littered with glass, rubble and cars that had slammed into each other after the blast. The buildings that remained standing looked as if they had been skinned, leaving hulking skeletons.
The casualty toll continued to rise; the health minister, Hamad Hassan, told Lebanese media that at least 135 were confirmed dead and 5,000 were injured, and some people were still missing.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, told the Beirut-based news network Al Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
With electricity out in most of the city, emergency workers were limited in what they could do until the sun rose, when they joined residents digging through the wreckage even as fires still smoldered around them.
“We need everything to hospitalize the victims, and there is an acute shortage of everything,” Mr. Hassan said on Wednesday.
The government’s minister of information, Dr. Manal Abdel Samad Najd, said after a Cabinet meeting that the country would enter a two week state of emergency, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency. The measure gave the security forces authority to impose house arrest on anyone involved in the storage of ammonium nitrate at the port while the investigation continues.
Lebanese officials knew the dangers posed by storing ammonium nitrate at the port, but failed to act.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that Lebanese officials are blaming for the huge explosion arrived in the city aboard an ailing, Russian-owned cargo ship that made an unscheduled stop in the city more than six years ago.
Lebanese customs officials wrote letters to the courts at least six times from 2014 to 2017, seeking guidance on how to dispose of the highly combustible material, according to public records cited by a Lebanese lawmaker, Salim Aoun.
Solutions proposed by the officials included exporting the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer and explosives, or donating it to the Lebanese Army. But the judiciary failed to respond to the letters, the records suggested.
The general manager of Beirut port, Hassan Koraytem, confirmed that in an interview on Wednesday, saying that despite repeated requests from customs and security officials, “nothing happened.”
“We were told the cargo would be sold in an auction,” he added. “But the auction never happened and the judiciary never acted.”
He had “no idea” what caused the initial fire at the storage facility, he said. Four of his employees died in the blast. “This is not the time to blame,” he said. “We are living a national catastrophe.”
But for many Lebanese, the saga is another sign of the chronic mismanagement of a ruling class that has steered the country into a punishing economic crisis.
Anger swelled around the country as people demanded to know who was to blame for the dangerous cache being allowed to sit at the port for years, and why it was not kept in safer conditions.
“As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said.
The origin of the disaster began in 2013 with a troubled cargo ship.
In Lebanon, public rage focused on the negligence of officials who allowed dangerous cargo to sit on a dock for years.
The countdown to catastrophe began with a dilapidated, Russian-owned freighter plagued by debts and a disgruntled crew. The ship, the Rhosus, flew the flag of Moldova and was owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman living in Cyprus. It left Batumi, Georgia, with a cargo of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique, but in November 2013, it made a detour to Beirut.
The captain, Boris Prokoshev, said in an interview on Wednesday that he had joined the ship in Turkey after a mutiny over unpaid wages by a previous crew. Mr. Prokoshev, now 70 and retired, said Mr. Grechushkin had told him he couldn’t pay for passage through the Suez Canal, so he sent the ship to Beirut to take on additional cargo, including heavy machinery.
The machinery would not fit into the ship, Mr. Prokoshev said, speaking from his home in Sochi, Russia. When the owner failed to pay port fees, Lebanese officials impounded it, forcing the crew to remain aboard.
Mr. Grechushkin apparently abandoned it, and the crew, several of them Ukrainians, struggled to obtain food and supplies. Their situation attracted attention in Ukraine, and after nearly two years a Lebanese judge ordered the crew released. Mr. Grechushkin paid for their passage to Odessa, in Ukraine.
That left Lebanese authorities in charge of the ammonium nitrate, which they moved to a dockside storage facility known as Hanger 12. Mr. Prokoshev, who said he was still owed $60,000 in wages, blamed Mr. Grechushkin for playing games with money, and Lebanese officials for keeping the ammonium nitrate at the port.
When he learned of the blast, Mr. Prokoshev said, “I was horrified.”
Anger simmers a day after the blast.
Even as the government vowed a swift and thorough investigation into the explosion, outrage swelled in Lebanon over long-term government mismanagement and the role it might have played in the disaster.
Videos shared on social media showed a small group of protesters approach the convoy of Saad Hariri, the former prime minister who resigned in October amid widespread protests, as he was touring the city on Wednesday. Some of the protesters screamed at the convoy before isolated scuffles broke out between security personnel and the crowd.
The interaction is the latest evidence of the deep tensions and resentment fueled by years of negligent, and hapless, often corrupt governance.
Later on Wednesday, Mr. Hariri posted a video to his Twitter account of him touring the areas impacted by the blast, portraying a very different impression of the same scene. In his post, he offered condolences to the families of the dead and said there was “no one in #Beirut who was uninjured.”
Mr. Hariri and his family are a wealthy political force in the country. His father, Rafik Hariri, also served as prime minister, and was assassinated in Beirut in 2005. The younger Mr. Hariri stepped down last fall amid the collapse of the country’s economy and widespread fury at the country’s entire political class.
Beirutis struggle to salvage what they can from an area resembling a war zone.
Across wide swaths of central Beirut, residents spent Wednesday picking through the destruction to see what they could salvage from damaged businesses and homes.
Some of the best-known hotels along the city’s Mediterranean seafront had been replaced by gaping holes, many with curtains flapping in the breeze. Gemmayzeh, an upscale Christian neighborhood known in better times for its historic buildings and rowdy nightlife, resembled a war zone.
Cars with windshields smashed by falling debris were scattered about, and tree branches torn off by the blast blocked at least one road. Everywhere, it seemed, people were clearing glass, rubble and blood from sidewalks, homes and balconies.
Roger Matar, 42, said he and his family had been packing for a trip to the mountains when they heard what sounded like airplanes overhead, followed by the first blast. “Then everything was shaking and all the doors and windows were gone,” he said.
Four of the family’s cars parked outside were damaged and all of the apartment’s doors and windows were blown inward, damaging everything inside.
Mr. Matar said the family would struggle to fix the home because of the financial crisis roiling the country, which had caused banks to place strict limits on cash withdrawals even before the explosion hit.
“The banks are holding our money,” Mr. Matar said. “And if you need to pay workers, you need cash, so it won’t be easy to fix the apartment.” He said he expected little support from the Lebanese state.
“It should be the government that helps, but they are bankrupt,” he said. “The country is broken.”
Some 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes. But amid the devastation, stories of heroism.
The Lebanese Red Cross raced to set up temporary shelters with food, hygiene kits and basic needs to house up to 1,000 families who lost their homes, although that will help only a small fraction of the estimated 300,000 people who were displaced by the blast.
But even as scores of people remained missing and families engaged in desperate searches in the two-square-mile blast zone around the port, stories of heroism also began to emerge.
Cheers erupted as rescue workers pulled a young man from the rubble. His clothes were caked in dirt as he was carried on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. He had been pinned under a collapsed building for more than 10 hours, bystanders said.
Many on social media applauded the quick thinking of a woman seen in a video vacuuming on a balcony when the first blast hit. Without hesitation, she threw herself forward to shield a young girl across the room, swept her into her arms and ran for safety.
The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, told reporters that hundreds of thousands had been displaced by the explosion.
Across the battered city, residents, hotels, schools and others offered shelter to those in need, coordinating efforts on social media.
“Please DM me if you or anyone you know needs shelter,” wrote Joelle Eid on Twitter. “My family home was not affected and is open. We can arrange for transport as well. #ourhomesareopen.”
A charity set up an Instagram account compiling pleas from family and friends of the missing that showed the extent of the devastation and how thoroughly it had pummeled the city.
The account posted photographs of at least 90 missing people with contact information for their families just hours after it was established. More than 2 million pounds, or about $2.6 million, had been donated to the effort.
The diversity of the names of the missing made clear that the blast spared no sect, age or class in Beirut, a city of about two million and home to thousands of Syrian refugees.
“Dima Abdel Samid Kaiss was visiting her dad” in the hospital, one post read. “The whole hospital was evacuated, she is not found yet.”
Other posts from family, friends and colleagues included information about a firefighter who went missing after rushing to help tame the flames at the port and a photograph of a grandfather cradling his grandson.
Hundreds lined up to donate blood overnight at a blood bank in the northern city of Tripoli, with one ride sharing company offering free rides to and from hospitals for those willing to give blood.
Urban search and rescue units from across the region and further afield — including from France, Poland, Greece and the Netherlands — were sent to Beirut to assist in the hunt for the missing.
Trump insists again that the blast could have been an attack.
President Trump doubled down on his claim that the Beirut explosion might have been a bombing — though other administration officials and foreign leaders say it was probably an accident — telling reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he had heard “both” arguments.
“They don’t really know what it is. Nobody knows yet. At this moment, they are looking, how can you say? Somebody left some terrible explosive type of devices, and the things around, perhaps it was that, perhaps it was on attack. I don’t think anybody can say right now. We are looking into it very strongly,” Mr. Trump said at a late-day briefing with reporters.
Mr. Trump had said on Tuesday that the explosion “looks like a bomb of some kind,” and that American military leaders “seem to think it was an attack.” He reiterated that view a day later, and did not relent after it was noted that Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, had said that it was likely an accident.
“I’ve heard accident, I’ve heard explosives. Obviously it must’ve been some form of explosives,” Mr. Trump said. “If I’ve heard it both ways, it could have been an accident, it also could’ve been something very offensive.”
The president added: “In any event, it was a terrible event and a lot of people were killed, a tremendous number of people were badly wounded and injured, and we are standing with that country. You know we have a very good relationship with that country, but it’s a country under a lot of turmoil.”
The science behind the blast: Why fertilizer is so dangerous.
When an explosive compound detonates, it releases gas that rapidly expands. This “shock wave” is essentially a wall of dense air that can cause damage, and it dissipates as it spreads farther out.
A mass of exploding ammonium nitrate produces a blast that moves at many times the speed of sound, and this wave can reflect and bounce as it moves — especially in an urban area like the Beirut waterfront — destroying some buildings while leaving others relatively undamaged
The explosive power of ammonium nitrate can be difficult to quantify in absolute terms, given that it depends on the age of the compound and the conditions in which it is stored. However, it could be as high as about 40 percent of the power of TNT.
At 40 percent the power of TNT, the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate could produce 1 pound per square inch of overpressure — defined as the pressure caused by a shock wave over and above normal atmospheric pressure — as far as 6,600 feet away. The same explosion would produce 27 p.s.i. at a distance of 793 feet — enough to flatten most buildings, and kill people either through direct trauma or by being struck by debris.
Accidental detonation of ammonium nitrate has caused a number of deadly industrial accidents, including the worst in United States history: In 1947, a ship carrying an estimated 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas, starting a chain reaction of blasts and blazes that killed 581 people.
The chemical has also been the primary ingredient in bombs used in several terrorist attacks, including the destruction of the federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people. That bomb contained about two tons of ammonium nitrate.
I was bloodied and dazed. Beirut strangers treated me like a friend.
Vivian Yee, a correspondent for The New York Times, was at home in Beirut when two explosions convulsed the city. This is her first-person account of what happened.
I was just about to look at a video a friend had sent me on Tuesday afternoon — “the port seems to be burning,” she said — when my whole building shook. Uneasily, naïvely, I ran to the window, then back to my desk to check for news.
Then came a much bigger boom, and the sound itself seemed to splinter. There was shattered glass flying everywhere. Not thinking but moving, I ducked under my desk.
When the world stopped cracking open, I couldn’t see at first because of the blood running down my face. After blinking the blood from my eyes, I tried to take in the sight of my apartment turned into a demolition site. My yellow front door had been hurled on top of my dining table. I couldn’t find my passport, or sturdy shoes.
Later, someone would tell me that Beirutis of her generation, raised during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, instinctively ran into their hallways as soon as they heard the first blast, to escape the glass they knew would break.
I was not so well trained, but the Lebanese who would help me in the hours to come had the steadiness that comes from having lived through countless previous disasters. Nearly all were strangers, yet they treated me like a friend.
When I got downstairs, someone passing on a motorbike saw my bloody face and told me to hop on.
Everyone on the street seemed to be either bleeding from open gashes or swathed in makeshift bandages — all except one woman in a chic, backless top leading a small dog on a leash. Only an hour before, we had all been walking dogs or checking email or grocery shopping. Only an hour before, there had been no blood.
Victims streamed to badly damaged hospitals as medical workers and patients streamed out.
Several of Beirut’s hospitals were devastated at the moment they were needed most.
Two hospitals, about half a mile from the blast, were so ravaged they had to shut down completely. The explosion killed four nurses and at least 13 patients at Saint George Hospital University Medical Center. At Hopital des Soeurs du Rosaire, a nurse was killed and the nurse who ran the operating room suffered two broken legs.
“All the lifts are broken, all the respirators, all the monitors, all the doors — everything is destroyed,” said Dr. Joseph Elias, the head of the cardiology department at Hopital des Soeurs du Rosaire.
A warehouse holding much of Lebanon’s supply of medications was believed to have been leveled.
Even hospitals that remained partly functional had to evacuate blast-damaged areas, and some said they could not take new patients. People were knocked off their feet or out of bed by the shock wave, and injured by flying glass, furniture and rubble.
Power failures put lights and elevators out of commission, forcing patients and hospital staff to pick their way through debris and down staircases in darkness. As they poured out of the buildings, they were met by a flood of wounded people who were trying to get in.
Hospitals moved the patients they could to undamaged hospitals elsewhere. They treated the seriously injured in corridors and parking lots, while turning many others away.
At Saint George, “we were barely functioning before and now we are underground, below zero,” said Tony Toufic, a hospital engineer. He held out little hope of aid from Lebanon’s dysfunctional government.
One nurse at St. George scooped up three premature infants from the neonatal intensive care unit to carry them to safety. A photojournalist, Bilal Jawich, captured a photograph of the nurse, who has not been publicly identified.
After the explosion, Dr. Joseph Haddad, director of intensive care at Saint George, rushed to the hospital, expecting to be busy stitching up patients and saving lives, but he found it in ruins.
“The patients were coming down the stairs,” he said. “They were walking down from as high as nine floors up.”
In maps: A two-mile radius around the blast was flattened.
The disaster raises concerns about food security in a nation already struggling with economic crisis.
The destruction of the Port of Beirut in a pair of explosions has left the country in a precarious position as it was both Lebanon’s central storage location for grain and a critical link in the supply chain that the country relies on for critical goods like food and medicine.
The disaster struck a country that was already struggling with an economic collapse, a political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the blast, Save the Children had warned that almost one million people did not have money to buy essentials, including sufficient food, and more than 500,000 children were already struggling to get enough to eat.
The explosion devastated the port, destroying or damaging silos that store 85 percent of the country’s grain. Even the wheat that survived was made inedible by the explosion.
Lebanon’s economic minister, Raoul Nehme, told reporters on Wednesday that the country had less than a month’s reserves of wheat, well below the three-month minimum needed to ensure basic food security.
And because the country is reliant on imports for more than 80 percent of its food supply, the loss of the port will make it more challenging to bring in much-needed relief.
Imports at Lebanon’s second port in Tripoli will be increased, but it will be hard to make up for the loss of the Beirut port, which handled 60 percent of the country’s overall imports, according to S & P Global.
Numerous countries said on Wednesday that they would send aid to Lebanon. Russia is sending five humanitarian planes that carry a mobile hospital, rescue teams and doctors, and France is sending 55 emergency workers aboard two planes.
A judgment on a different Beirut blast is postponed.
The explosion occurred just three days before a tribunal was scheduled to announce long-awaited verdicts in another spectacularly destructive blast in Beirut — the 2005 car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.
On Wednesday, the United Nations-backed special tribunal, which sits in The Hague, delayed the verdict announcement from Friday until Aug. 18, “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion” in Beirut this week. Four Lebanese men have been tried for conspiracy to carry out the assassination.
The tribunal, which was inaugurated in 2009, is one of the most expensive and expansive undertakings in international jurisprudence, and it has been fodder for critics who say such courts are cumbersome, expensive and even pointless.
None of the defendants have appeared at the court and their whereabouts are unknown; they have been tried in absentia. The trial also never answered the basic question of who ordered the bombing.
Yet the tribunal has spent nearly $700 million investigating and prosecuting the Hariri assassination, employing 400 staff members and 11 full-time judges.
Tensions surrounding the impending verdict had raised fears that it would further inflame Lebanon, which was in the midst of an economic and political crisis well before the coronavirus pandemic and the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday.
Israel offered aid but it was not clear Lebanon would accept it.
Within hours of the explosion, Israel offered to provide its old foe, Lebanon, with humanitarian aid. It was not clear the help would be welcomed.
The approach was made through foreign mediators, since Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations. It came just over a week after Israel said it had repelled an infiltration attempt by a Hezbollah squad along its northern frontier, in part by firing artillery shells into southern Lebanon.
After a deadly raid by Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party, Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, attempting to uproot the group, and they fought a devastating, monthlong war. Hezbollah is now part of Lebanon’s governing coalition.
No Lebanese politician would want to be seen as allied with or beholden to Israel, which remains deeply unpopular across Lebanon’s political spectrum.
Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, and foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, both former army chiefs of staff, offered medical assistance via “international defense and diplomatic channels,” Mr. Gantz said on Tuesday on Twitter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had instructed a top adviser to speak with a United Nations envoy about how to deliver aid. On Wednesday, in Parliament, he said, “we are ready to offer humanitarian assistance, as human beings to human beings.” He conveyed the same message in Arabic on Twitter.
An official in Israel’s Ministry of Defense, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity, said there had been no reply from Lebanon by Wednesday evening. But another government official said contacts were underway between Israel and Nikolay Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Mladenov’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked later about possible Israeli aid to Lebanon, a United Nations spokesman, Farhan Haq, said: “Obviously we appreciate all offers of assistance from member states.”
Israel has sent search and rescue teams, and set up military field hospitals in previous disaster zones, including in Turkey and Haiti. Israeli hospitals have treated victims of the civil war in Syria, an enemy state.
Beirut’s landmark downtown is in shambles. Again.
Landmarks that came to symbolize the hope of attaining a peaceful coexistence after the end of Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war, including Beirut’s bustling downtown, were left in pieces. The streets looked like they were “cobbled in glass,” one resident said of the shattered windows strewn across the city.
When the explosion rippled through the capital on Tuesday, many Lebanese felt it was the heartbreakingly natural conclusion of a government unable to manage the country’s affairs. As residents shared information about which aid organizations to donate to, a common plea emerged: Don’t give to the government.
The distrust leads back to when downtown Beirut was destroyed during the civil war. The section of the city represented the vibrant fabric of Lebanon that had turned on itself as the country succumbed to infighting.
But the revived downtown came to represent everything that was wrong with the Lebanese political system after the war. Residents with homes there, the facades crumbling from shelling and bombing, were run out by a private company set up by former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Downtown became a place that symbolized Lebanon’s inequality, with homes unattainable for the average citizen in a country where the minimum wage is $450 per month.
Here’s how to help.
The images of the explosions in Beirut have shocked the world and overwhelmed authorities, damaging infrastructure including many hospital and critical facilities.
For those looking for way to give support and help to help here’s a list of groups to support.
The Lebanese Red Cross is the main provider of ambulance services in Lebanon, and said it would dispatch every ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon to Beirut to treat the wounded and help in search-and-rescue operations. You can make a one-time contribution here.
Impact Lebanon, a nonprofit organization, has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help organizations on the ground, and is helping to share information about those still missing after the explosion. The group had raised over $3 million as of Wednesday and donated the first $100,000 to the Lebanese Red Cross.
Over 300,000 people in Beirut were displaced from their homes by the explosion. Baytna Baytak, a charity that provided free housing to health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic, is now raising funds with Impact Lebanon to shelter those who have been displaced.
For those in Beirut, here is a list of urgent blood needs. Several social media accounts have also been set up to help locate victims.
Reporting was contributed by Ben Hubbard, Vivian Yee, Hwaida Saad, Maria Abi-Habib, John Ismay, Russell Goldman, Marc Santora, Megan Specia, Elian Peltier, Declan Walsh, Nada Rashwan, and Isabel Kershner.