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2020 Beirut Explosion
Accidental ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut, Lebanon
2020 Beirut explosion
Aftermath of the explosion, with the destroyed grain silos to the left and the flooded blast crater to the right
On 4 August 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut in the capital city of Lebanon exploded, causing at least 218 deaths, 7,000 injuries, and US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. A cargo of 2,750 tones of the substance (equivalent to around 1.1 kilotons of TNT) had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures for the previous six years, after having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the abandoned ship MV Rhosus. The explosion was preceded by a fire in the same warehouse, but as of September 2021[update], the exact cause of the detonation is still under investigation.
The explosion occurred behind the grain silos in this view.
The economy of Lebanon was in a state of crisis before the explosions, with the government having defaulted on debt, the pound plunging, and a poverty rate that had risen past 50%. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic had overwhelmed many of the country's hospitals, several of which were already short of medical supplies and unable to pay staff due to the financial crisis. The morning before the explosion, the head of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which served as the main coronavirus medical facility in Lebanon, warned that it was approaching full capacity.
The government-owned Port of Beirut serves as the main maritime entry point into Lebanon and a vital piece of infrastructure for the importation of scarce goods. The Beirut Naval Base is a part of the port. The port included four basins, sixteen quays, twelve warehouses, a large container terminal, and grain silos with a total capacity of 120,000 tonnes that served as a strategic reserve of cereals for the country. The silos were built in the 1960s as part of an expansion plan advanced by Palestinian banker Yousef Beidas.
On 27 September 2013, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship MV Rhosus set sail from Batumi, Georgia, to Beira, Mozambique, carrying 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate.Rhosus was owned by a company based in Panama but was regarded by the captain as under the de facto ownership of Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin. The shipment had been ordered by an African explosives manufacturing company for mining in Mozambique. However, reporting by Der Spiegel has found that it was not Russian national Grechushkin who owned the Rhosus, but rather the Cypriot businessman Charalambos Manoli, who maintained a relationship with the bank used by Hezbollah in Lebanon. On 21 November 2013, the ship made port in Beirut. Some sources said it was forced to port due to mechanical issues and possibly engine problems, while other sources claimed the owner did not have sufficient funds to pay tolls for the Suez Canal and attempted to take on a shipment of heavy machinery in Beirut. The heavy machinery was stacked on top of the doors to the cargo space containing the ammonium nitrate, causing the doors to buckle, which damaged the ship. After inspection by port state control, the Rhosus was deemed unseaworthy, and was forbidden to set sail. Eight Ukrainians and one or two Russians were aboard, and with the help of the Ukrainian consul, five Ukrainians were repatriated, leaving four crew members to care for the ship.
The port of Beirut in 2017, with Rhosus moored on the right. Livestock carriersAbou KarimI and Abou KarimIII, both severely damaged in the explosions, are in the center, the latter largely obscuring the former.
The Port of Beirut eleven days after the disaster. The French amphibious assault shipTonnerre is the large ship on the right, which arrived in the port on 13 August to provide food, construction materials, medical supplies, and personnel.
Grechushkin went bankrupt,[a] and after the charterers lost interest in the cargo, he abandoned the ship. The Rhosus soon ran out of provisions, and the remaining crew were unable to disembark due to immigration restrictions. According to Lloyd's List, the Beirut port authority seized the ship on 4February 2014, due to US$100,000 in unpaid bills. The ship had accrued port fees and been fined for refusing cargo. Lawyers argued for the crew's repatriation on compassionate grounds, because of the danger posed by the cargo still aboard the ship, and an Urgent Matters judge in Beirut allowed them to return home. They had been forced to live aboard the ship for about a year.
By order of the judge, the cargo was brought ashore in 2014 and placed in Warehouse 12 at the port, where it remained for the next six years. The MV Rhosus sank in the harbor in February 2018.
Customs officials had sent letters to judges requesting a resolution to the issue of the confiscated cargo, proposing that the ammonium nitrate be either exported, given to the army, or sold to the private Lebanese Explosives Company.[b] Letters had been sent on 27 June and 5 December 2014, 6 May 2015, 20 May and 13 October 2016, and 27 October 2017. One of the letters sent in 2016 noted that judges had not replied to previous requests, and pleaded:
In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount...
Fire and first explosion
Around 6 P.M. on 4 August 2020, a fire broke out in Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut. Warehouse 12 was waterside and next to the grain silos; the warehouse stored the ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated from MV Rhosus, alongside a stash of fireworks. Around 17:55 local time (14:55 UTC), a team of nine firefighters and one paramedic, known as Platoon 5, was dispatched to fight the fire. On arrival the fire crew reported there was "something wrong" as the fire was huge and produced "a crazy sound".
The first explosion, at about 18:07 local time (15:07 UTC), likely triggered by the stored fireworks, sent up a large cloud of smoke and a crackle of bright firework flashes, and heavily damaged the structure of the warehouse itself with a force equivalent to around 1.5-2.5 tons of TNT, the size of a mid-sized truck.
The second explosion, 33 to 35 seconds later, was much more substantial and was felt in northern Israel and in Cyprus, 240 kilometers (150 miles) away. It rocked central Beirut and sent a red-orange cloud into the air, which was briefly surrounded by a white condensation cloud. The orange-red color of the smoke was caused by nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of ammonium nitrate decomposition.
By the next morning, the main fire that led to the explosion had been extinguished.
Collated time of arrival vs distance from analysis of social media video footage, with the best estimate (0.50 kt TNT) and reasonable upper limit (1.12 kt TNT) curves determined from regression analysis.
Warehouses in the port were used to store explosives and chemicals including nitrates, common components of fertilizers and explosives.[e] The General Director of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, said the ammonium nitrate confiscated from Rhosus had exploded. The 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate was the equivalent to around 1,155 tonnes of TNT (4,830 gigajoules). The failure to remove the materials from the warehouse and relocate them was attributed to mismanagement of the port, corruption of the government, and inaction of the flag registry's country and ship owner.
The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International said that, according to attendees of a Higher Defence Council briefing, the fire was ignited by workers welding a door at a warehouse. A former port worker said that "[t]here were 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks inside warehouse 12" that he had personally seen. An American diplomatic cable on 7 August said it "remains unclear ... whether fireworks, ammunition or something else stored next to the ammonium nitrate might have been involved" in worsening the warehouse fire and igniting the ammonium nitrate. A port worker said Warehouse 12 was "not in regular use", and that "those in charge only used to open the warehouse to stack inside it materials confiscated upon judicial orders or perilous products", though he had not seen this to include any armaments.
The explosion overturned cars and stripped steel-framed buildings of their cladding. Within the port area, the explosion destroyed a section of shoreline and left a crater roughly 124 m (407 ft) in diameter and 43 m (141 ft) in depth. Homes as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) away were damaged by the blast, and up to 300,000 people were left homeless by the explosion. The grain silos were largely destroyed, exacerbating food shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe financial crisis. About 15,000 tonnes (14,800 long tons; 16,500 short tons) of grain were lost, leaving the country with less than a month's worth of grain in reserve. However, part of the silos' sturdy structure survived, shielding a large area of western Beirut from greater destruction.
The damage from the blast affected over half of Beirut, with the likely cost above $15 billion and insured losses at around $3 billion. Approximately ninety percent of the hotels in the city were damaged and three hospitals completely destroyed, while two more suffered damage. Dozens of injured people brought to nearby hospitals could not be admitted because of the damage to the hospitals. Windows and other installations of glass across the city were shattered.
Saint George Hospital, one of the city's largest medical facilities, was less than 1 kilometer (5⁄8 mile) from the explosion, and was so badly damaged that staff were forced to treat patients in the street. Four nurses died from the initial blast, fifteen patients died after their ventilators stopped working, and several child cancer patients were injured by flying glass. Within hours, after discharging all its patients, and sending some to other facilities, Saint George Hospital was forced to close. The hospital's director of intensive care, Dr. Joseph Haddad, was quoted as saying: "There is no St. George Hospital any more. It's fallen, it's on the floor... It's all destroyed. All of it."
The cruise ship Orient Queen, berthed nearby, suffered extensive damage and capsized overnight. Two members of the crew were killed, and seven crew members were injured. On 7 August, the first lawsuit related to the explosions was filed by the ship's owners, Abou Merhi Cruises, whose offices were also destroyed.
The edible-oil tanker ship AmadeoII, being used as a bunker barge at the port, was nearest to the explosion, which deposited the mangled remains of the ship on a nearby quay. The ship's crew died in the explosion. Two large livestock carriers, Abou KarimI and Abou KarimIII, laid up at the end of Berth 09, very close to Warehouse 12, were heavily damaged. Abou KarimI became unstable, keeled over onto the adjacent Abou KarimIII and shortly afterwards capsized. The livestock carrier Jouri and the cargo shipsMero Star and Raouf H were also close to the blast and suffered serious damage; AIS from these ships stopped broadcasting at the time of the explosion.
Hapag-Lloyd's offices in Beirut were destroyed.CMA CGM's offices, located a few hundred meters away from the site of the explosion, were severely damaged. One employee died and two were severely injured.
Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, the city's main airport, about 10 km (6 mi) from the site of the blast, sustained moderate damage to the terminal buildings during the explosion. Doors and windows were destroyed, and ceiling tiles were shaken loose by the shockwave, severing electrical wires. Despite the damage, flights continued.
On 5 August, the Council agreed to place sixteen Beirut port officials who had overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, overseen by the army, pending the investigation into the explosions. In addition, the general manager of the port Hassan Koraytem and the former director general of Lebanon's customs authority Shafiq Merhi were arrested. Later, on 17 August, the incumbent director-general of Lebanon's customs authority Badri Daher was also arrested. Also, former ministers of both finance and public works are due to be interrogated by a judge appointed by the Lebanon's High Judicial Council. In the meantime, Lebanon's state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered a travel ban on seven individuals including Hassan Koraytem. On 12 August, Lebanon's caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm commented on the investigation by saying: "Much of the criticism is warranted due to the slow pace of work and some politicization, but this case is a chance for the Lebanese judiciary to prove they can do their jobs and win back the confidence of the people". On 19 August, a Lebanon judge ordered the arrests of more suspects over the explosion, making the total number of accused 25.
In September, Lebanon's state prosecution asked Interpol to detain two Russian citizens, the captain and the owner of Rhosus, as its cargo of ammonium nitrate was blamed for the explosion. In January 2021, Interpol issued Red Notices[j] against the two Russians as well as a Portuguese man.
In December 2020, Lebanon's outgoing Prime Minister Diab and three former ministers were charged with negligence over the Beirut port explosion. The former ministers were former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works. Zeitar was transport and public works minister in 2014, followed by Fenianos in 2016, who held the job until the beginning of 2020. Khalil was finance minister in 2014, 2016, and until 2020.
On 28 January 2021, Syrian-Russian businessman George Haswani denied any links to the Beirut explosion. He told Reuters he did not know anything about a company linked to the process of buying a shipment of chemicals that exploded. In an interview with Reuters at his home in Damascus, Haswani said that he had resorted to the Cypriot company Interstatus to register his company, which is the same agent that registered the Savaro company, and that the agent company had moved the registration site of the two companies to the same address on the same day. However, Haswani said that he did not know anything about Savaro and that any links between it and his company are just a coincidence because the two companies have the same agent. As stated in previous reports, Reuters was unable to determine whether Haswani had anything to do with Savaro. Haswani said, "I don't know what other companies are registered by this Cypriot company, five or three or 70 or more." "It is a fabricated media whirlwind. We don't know Savaro and we hadn't heard about them before this.," Haswani told Reuters, commenting on reports indicating his involvement in the explosion. Interstatus did not respond to a request for comment. Marina Psyllou, the director of the "Interstatus" company, was listed in the registration documents of the company (Savaro) as the only owner and director of the company, but she denied that she was the real manager of the company. He told Reuters in mid-January 2021 that the beneficial owner of the company was another person, whom she refused to identify. She added that Savaro was a dormant company that had never conducted business. Haswani said that he was not contacted by any investigators from Lebanon or any other country regarding the explosion and that he will soon work to file a legal case in Paris against media reports linking him to the explosion. He continued, "I am living my life normally and laughing because I am someone who knows well that I have nothing to do with this matter at all. Why would I worry?"
On 15 April 2021, six detained people were released, including two officers, although they were not allowed to travel out of Lebanon.
In September 2021 OCCRP published an investigation, which linked Savaro Limited to a Ukrainian company trading chemicals, directed by Ukrainian citizen Volodymyr Verbonol. The report also mentions that only 20% of the nitrate originally stored in the warehouse was actually left when it exploded, raising questions about what happened with the rest.
The Lebanese Red Cross said every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa, and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients. According to the agency, a total of 75 ambulances and 375 medics were activated in response to the explosions.Lebanese PresidentMichel Aoun said the government would make up to 100billion pounds (US$66million) in aid available to support recovery operations. The ride-sharing app Careem offered free rides to and from hospitals and blood donation centers to anyone willing to donate blood. Volunteers removed debris while local business owners offered to repair damaged buildings for free in the absence of a state-sponsored cleanup operation. A temporary hospital was established in the city by the Iranian Red Crescent Society.
Health Minister Hamad Hasan requested that international aid be sent to Lebanon; a number of countries sent in food, medical supplies, field hospitals, medical workers, and rescue teams. On 9 August, a multinational summit hosted by France raised 253 million euros in aid. The money pledged was not to be given to the Lebanese government, but rather to the people of Lebanon through the United Nations, other international organizations, and non-governmental organizations. On 14 August, a $565 million appeal for Lebanon was launched by the United Nations, including initial recovery efforts, as well as immediate humanitarian aid.
In the first week after the explosion, civilians gathered in hundreds to volunteer to clean up the debris on the streets and inside homes and businesses in Gemmayze, Achrafieh, and Karantina neighborhoods. Many civil society organizations offered equipment and food to the volunteers, while many residents and businesses opened their homes and hotels for free to those who lost their homes in the blast.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that 5 August, the day after the explosion, would be a national day of mourning. The Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency. President Aoun said the government would provide support to displaced people, and the Ministry of Health would meet the expense of treatment for the wounded.Marwan Abboud, the governor of Beirut, said he arrived at the scene to search for firefighters who were on the site attempting to control the fire that was raging before the second explosion. He broke down in tears on television, calling the event "a national catastrophe". "It resembles to what happened in Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That's what [it] reminds me of. In my life, I haven't seen destruction on this scale," he said. Lebanese civilians from every region in Lebanon came to help by offering food, cleaning the streets, and helping NGOs.
Representatives of multiple countries, as well as the United Nations (UN), offered condolences. In addition to those countries which provided aid, others offered to do so.[k] Notably, Israel offered aid via UN channels, as Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic ties and are technically at war; the offer was refused by the Lebanese government. Former Israeli official Moshe Feiglin hailed the tragedy as a gift from God, celebrating the incident and describing it as a "spectacular firework show." Despite years of conflict, including the 2006 Lebanon War, both Israel and senior Hezbollah officials ruled out Israeli involvement in the explosion, despite claims and allegations spread via social media.[l]
In August 2021, a memorial event was held in tribute to the victims at the location of the explosion joined by UN officials and International Labour Organization Regional Director Ruba Jaradat.
Numerous conspiracy theories emerged on social media in the days following the explosion. The main themes were that there was a significant weapons cache belonging to Hezbollah stored at the Port of Beirut, and that Israel wished to destroy those weapons. The theories said that Israel launched an attack and the level of destruction took them by surprise. Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah have allegedly all conspired to deny this and blame the ammonium nitrate stored in the port. The apparent motives were that Israel did not want to be blamed for the level of destruction, Hezbollah did not want to be blamed for storing a significant amount of weapons in Beirut, and Lebanon is in the grip of a political and economic crisis and not denying the theories could lead to a significantly worse situation.
Israeli military jets have been seen over Beirut both before and after the explosion. Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2018 highlighting that Hezbollah were believed to be storing weapons in Beirut, albeit in the vicinity of the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, some 10 km from the Port of Beirut. Netanyahu has furthermore claimed there is a Hezbollah arms manufacturing facility in the Jnah neighbourhood in Beirut, a claim Hezbollah denies. Danny Danon, Israel's Ambassador to the UN, is quoted as stating "The Port of Beirut has become the Port of Hezbollah."  This led to conspiracy theorists believing that Israel knew that Hezbollah were storing arms in the Port of Beirut.
It has been noted by military reporters that it is a possibility that Israel could have attacked the warehouse at the port without knowing how much explosive material it contained, although this would be unusually careless of the Israeli military.
Following the blast, US President Donald Trump asserted that the explosion was the result of an attack, but this was later contradicted by The Pentagon. There is suspicion around French President Emmanuel Macron visiting Lebanon, a former French colony, at least three times to resolve the crisis. The conspiracy theorists alleged during these visits Macron was doing a secret deal to cover up the 'true' cause of the explosion and this deal might have had wider implications for the continuation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was due to cease operations by July 2021 due to a lack of funds.
^Because the explosion occurred on the earth's surface, the seismic waves generated by the blast are not as strong as they would have been had the equivalent amount of energy been released from underground sources.
^As a point of comparison, the Halifax Explosion in 1917 (which was not caused by ammonium nitrate) was the world's largest non-nuclear explosion, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT (12,000 GJ).
^Other hazardous materials stored at the port included hydrofluoric acid oxidizer, benzoyl peroxide, calcium hypochlorite, picric acid, oils and several unknown chemicals. On 3 September 2020, the Lebanese Army announced that they found an additional 4.35 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the customs' "Detention Port", outside the seaport near entrance number 9.
^The five injured were connected to the Dutch embassy. The Dutch ambassador's wife, Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, was seriously injured and later died of her injuries.
^The palace had been restored over a twenty-year period following the civil war of 1975-1990.
^A Red Notice seeks the location and arrest of wanted persons wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence.
^Sri Lanka donated 1,675 kilos of Ceylon tea to those affected by the Beirut blast; however, the gift was distributed to the families of the soldiers in the Presidential Guard Brigade. In addition, 12 tons of fish donated by Mauritania were not distributed to the public, as the army only mentioned that they "stored it according to public safety standards".Iraq has sent 13,000 tons of wheat/flour to Lebanon; however, 7,000 tons of them were poorly stockpiled in the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium.
^In the meantime, Die Welt reported, according to the intelligence information, that Hezbollah received a total of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on July 16, 2013, delivered from Iran to Lebanon. On October 23 of the same year, another 270 tons of ammonium nitrate were delivered, in addition to a third delivery, which made the three deliveries equal to a quantity of 630 to 670 tons of ammonium nitrate. The second delivery was transported by plane, probably by Mahan Air, while the other deliveries were made by sea or land, for example across the Syrian border. Mohammad Qasir who has been responsible for Hezbollah's logistics for 20 years was also responsible for paying for the ammonium nitrate deliveries. In September 2020, the U.S. state department's counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, mentioned in a video appearance at the American Jewish Committee that: "I can reveal that such [Hezbollah weapons] caches have been moved through Belgium to France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. I can also reveal that significant ammonium nitrate caches have been discovered or destroyed in France, Greece, and Italy".
^Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi ordered the formation of a committee to remove hazardous inventories accumulated at the border ports. Subsequently, hazardous material was removed from storage inside Umm Qasr Port.
"Rhosus". Fleetmon [vessel tracker database]. Archived from the original on 7 August 2020. Retrieved 2020.
^ abcJørgensen, Lars Bach (5 August 2020). "Ekspert forklarer, hvad der sandsynligvis skete i Beirut" [Expert explains what probably happened in Beirut]. TV 2 (in Danish). Archived from the original on 6 August 2020. Retrieved 2020. The large amount of potentially dangerous fertilizer has been there since 2014, when the Moldavian ship Rhosus had to port due to engine problems.