BEIRUT: Rescuers searched for survivors in Beirut yesterday after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighborhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 240 km to the northwest.
The scale of the destruction was such that the Lebanese capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment. Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse. The blast has left 300,000 people homeless and caused damage across half of the city estimated to cost more than $3 billion, Beirut Governor Marwan Aboud told AFP yesterday.
HH the Deputy Amir of Kuwait and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on Tuesday sent a cable of condolences to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, in which he expressed condolences over the victims of the blast, reiterating Kuwait’s sympathies with Lebanon and praying to Almighty Allah that He bestows His mercy on the victims and for the speedy recovery of the injured. HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent a similar cable to Aoun. HH the Deputy Amir also instructed the dispatch of urgent medical supplies to Lebanon, Amiri Diwan Minister Sheikh Ali Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah said.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Kuwait reaffirms complete solidarity with Lebanon. “The State of Kuwait is following with great sorrow and pain the huge explosion that took place today afternoon in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, killing and injuring tens of people and causing severe material damage,” the ministry statement said on Tuesday. Kuwait, it affirmed, fully supports Lebanon in the face of this “painful incident” in order to “overcome its ramifications”. Kuwait, it added, stands by the “Lebanese brothers to preserve their security and stability”.
Health Minister Sheikh Dr Basel Al-Sabah expressed condolences to his Lebanese counterpart Hamad Hassan on the deadly Beirut port blast in a phone call Tuesday. During the call, Sheikh Basel stated that based on the directives of HH the Deputy Amir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf, and based on Kuwait’ solidarity with the brothers in Lebanon, Kuwait would provide urgent medical assistance to confront the effects of the huge explosion and overcome its repercussions.
The minister called on his counterpart in Lebanon to provide Kuwait with a list of medicines and urgent medical needs. The Lebanese minister thanked brothers in Kuwait for this generous initiative, wishing a speedy recovery for HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem also expressed condolences to his Lebanese counterpart Nabih Berri on Tuesday. Ghanem, in a cable to Berri, reaffirmed solidarity of the Kuwaiti people with the Lebanese people in these “difficult” circumstances. He prayed for Allah to have mercy on the dead and wished speedy recovery of the injured.
“We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,” said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer, speaking to AFP from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometer from the site of the blast. “We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,” he said, his voice choked by tears.
In the areas closest to the port, the amount of destruction caused by the long years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 was achieved in a second by a blast that leveled buildings within a radius of several hundred meters. One resident of Mar Mikhail, one of the most affected neighborhoods, said she saw bodies strewn in the middle of the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast. Many people were watching and filming with their phones after an earlier and smaller explosion was heard in the port and ignited a fire.
The resulting footage, which was widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shockwave engulfing everything around it. The mushroom-shaped explosion – which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude quake – and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy. “The Apocalypse” read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past, but none quite this big.
The embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances at the port that led to the explosion as “unacceptable” and vowed to investigate. “Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” he said. Messages of support poured in from around the world for Lebanon, whose economy was already on its knees after defaulting on sovereign debt earlier this year.
A crippling devaluation has sent poverty levels soaring to an estimated 50 percent of the population and for a country so heavily reliant on imports, the obliteration of the main port signaled more hardship ahead. 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.
Late Tuesday, thousands of families drove out of Beirut to take their families to safety, but many others were left stranded without a roof, unable to go anywhere or unwilling to leave their gutted homes open to looters. The rescue effort was slowed at night by the lack of electricity, which was already intermittent at best in much of the city before the explosion. The security forces sealed off a huge area around the blast site, turning away residents trying to reach their homes to assess the damage.
‘I saw the mushroom’
Johnny Assaf, an estate agent whose home and office were destroyed by the blast, said he lost everything except his life. “I saw the mushroom first, then the force of the blast swept through my office. It sent me literally flying halfway across the office until my head hit the printer,” he told AFP, nursing a hastily bandaged arm. “In hospital they stitched me up without anesthesia and then stopped before they were done because too many serious injuries were being rushed in. I saw people die in front of me,” he said.
Hospitals that had already been stretched to the brink by a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days were pushed to new limits by the influx of wounded and forced to turn many away. Saint-Georges hospital was badly damaged by the explosion and lost several members of its staff. The Red Cross said yesterday morning that more than 100 deaths had been confirmed. It also reported around 4,000 injured, prompting fears that the death toll could rise significantly.
In a country where smallholders have been unable to withdraw even limited amounts of cash from banks since the start of the year, there was little hope of compensation for those whose property was destroyed. Crippled by debt and political paralysis, Lebanon, which was due to celebrate its centenary next month, looked ill-equipped to tackle the new crisis. Grassroots solidarity was still alive however, with initiatives swiftly set up on social media to help people locate missing loved ones or assist victims with free accommodation. – Agencies