Beirut (AFP) – Rescuers worked through the night into Wednesday after two enormous explosions ripped through Beirut’s port, killing at least 78 people and injuring thousands, as they wrecked buildings across the Lebanese capital.
The second blast sent an enormous orange fireball into the sky, immediately followed by a tornado-like shockwave that flattened the port and shattered windows across the city.
The explosions — which were heard in Nicosia, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away in Cyprus — were logged by seismologists, registering as the equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake.
Bloodied, dazed and wounded people stumbled among the debris, glass shards and burning buildings in central Beirut.
Around 4,000 people were hurt by the blasts, with injuries recorded right across the city.
Lebanon is already reeling from an economic crisis that has left more than half of the population in poverty. The situation has been worsened in recent months by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, said that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at a port warehouse without safety measures, “endangering the safety of citizens,” according to a statement.
The Prime Minister called the storage of the material “unacceptable” and called for an investigation into the cause of the blast, with the results released within five days, the statement said.
“What happened today will not pass without accountability. Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said the material had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes from Beirut’s shopping and nightlife districts.
“It was like an atomic bomb,” said Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades.
“I’ve experienced everything, but nothing like this before,” even during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, she said.
“All the buildings around here have collapsed.”
Hospitals already struggling with the country’s coronavirus outbreak were overwhelmed by the influx of wounded people and the country’s Red Cross called for urgent blood donations.
As the national defence council declared Beirut a disaster zone, Diab appealed to Lebanon’s allies to “stand by” the country and “help us treat these deep wounds”.
President Michel Aoun declared three days of mourning, and announced he would release 100 billion lira ($66 million) of emergency funds.
The death toll from the blast is likely to continue to climb as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage. At least 78 people are known to have died and a further 4,000 wounded, Hamad Hasan, the country’s health minister said, according to Reuters.
Condolences poured in from across the world with Gulf nations, the United States and even Lebanon’s arch foe Israel offering to send aid. France also promised to send assistance.
“There are many people missing until now,” Hasan said. “People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity. We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”
A red cloud hung over the city in the wake of the explosion, which took place just after 6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET), as firefighting teams rushed to the scene to try to put out the initial fire. Footage from the scene captured the injured staggering through streets in the capital, and ambulances, cars and military vehicles packed with the wounded. One resident said the scenes looked “like an apocalypse.”
At least 10 firefighters are missing, according to the city’s governor Marwan Abboud, who said the scene reminded him of “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“In my life I haven’t seen destruction on this scale. This is a national catastrophe.”
Prime Minister Diab described the explosion as a “catastrophe” in his televised statement. He concluded by making “an emergency call to all those countries who love this country to stand by us and to help us heal our deep wounds.” World leaders have expressed their condolences amid the unfolding tragedy.
Israel offered humanitarian medical assistance to Lebanon — a significant gesture as Lebanon is one of a small number of countries that Israel regards as an enemy state. There have been no diplomatic relations since a ceasefire signed between the two countries in 1949.
A spokesman at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, Israel, not far from the border with Lebanon, told CNN that they had been contacted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and told to prepare for the possible arrival overnight of UN personnel wounded in the blast.
The UK, Turkey, Qatar and Spain were also among the countries that offered their support to Lebanon.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi called his Lebanese counterpart Charbel Wahbeh to say that”Jordanians stand in support with Lebanon and its Lebanese brothers and are ready to offer any help they need,” he said in a tweet.
French President Emmanuel Macron said “rescue and aid” were on the way to Lebanon, while expressing solidarity with the “Lebanese people after the explosion that caused so many casualties and so much damage tonight in Beirut.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that his country was ready to help Lebanon “in any way necessary.”
“My thoughts are with the people of #Lebanon and with the families of the victims of the tragic #BeirutBlast,” President of the European Council Charles Michel said in a tweet. “The EU stands ready to provide assistance and support.”
Lebanese militant and political group Hezbollah said the explosion will require the unity of all Lebanese to overcome the catastrophe.
“We are putting all our capabilities in serving our honorable people and dear citizens as needed.”