BEIRUT (AP) — Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, wounding thousands and leaving entire city blocks flooded with glass and rubble.
Smoke was still rising from the port, where a towering building of silos was half destroyed, spilling out mounds of grain. Hangars around it were completely toppled. Much of the downtown area was littered with damaged vehicles and debris that had rained down from the shattered facades of buildings.
An official with the Lebanese Red Cross said more than 4,000 were wounded. George Kettaneh said the toll could rise further.
It was unclear what caused the blast, which appeared to have been triggered by a fire and struck with the force of an earthquake. It was the most powerful explosion ever seen in the city, which was split in half by the 1975-1990 civil war and has endured conflicts with neighboring Israel and periodic bombings and terror attacks.
Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night. Many residents moved in with friends or relatives after their apartments were damaged and treated their own injuries because hospitals were overwhelmed.
Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its health system is confronting a coronavirus surge, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.
There was no evidence the explosion was an attack. Instead, many Lebanese blamed it on decades of corruption and poor governance by the entrenched political class that has ruled the tiny Mediterranean country since the civil war.
Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut which had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage. A physician who identified himself as Dr. Emile said 16 staff and patients, including four nurses, died in the blast. He declined to give his last name out of privacy concerns.
The blast also wounded a number of U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the area. Bangladesh said 21 members of its Navy were wounded, one critically. Italy, one of the top contributors to the UNIFIL mission, said one of its soldiers was wounded.
Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a local TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship impounded in 2013.
Explosives experts and video footage suggested the ammonium nitrate may have been ignited by a fire at what appeared to be a nearby warehouse containing fireworks.
Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertilizer as well as explosives. It was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2,180 kilograms (4,800 pounds) of fertilizer and fuel oil ripped through a federal building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more.
Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.
In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defense workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.
The blast severely damaged numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, appealed for international aid, saying: “We are witnessing a real catastrophe.” He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the disaster will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.
There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over 1 million Syrians displaced by that country’s nearly decade-long civil war.
Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open a cluster of towering grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Estimates suggest some 85% of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. But he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more.
Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, with even Israel offering humanitarian assistance. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant group.
Lebanon’s economic crisis is rooted in decades of systemic corruption by political factions that exploit public institutions for the benefit of their supporters. Decades after the civil war, residents endure frequent power outages and poor public services.
Lebanese have held mass protests calling for sweeping political change since last autumn but few of their demands have been met as the economic situation has steadily worsened.
Beirut’s port and the customs authority are notoriously corrupt. Like nearly all public institutions, they are controlled by Lebanon’s political factions, including Hezbollah.