‘They became ashes’: at least 27 killed in massive explosion at Beirut port

‘They became ashes’: at least 27 killed in massive explosion at Beirut port
‘They became ashes’: at least 27 killed in massive explosion at Beirut port

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least 27 people and wounding thousands more in the port area of the Lebanese capital Beirut, according to the country’s health minister.

The blast, felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, shattered windows and collapsed buildings in the area surrounding the port as a huge pink-hued mushroom cloud rose into the sky.

"It is a disaster in every sense of the word," Health Minister Hamad Hassan told the Lebanese press while visiting a hospital in the Lebanese capital.

A civil defense official at the scene of the blast said his men had evacuated dozens to hospitals and that there were still bodies inside the port, many of them under debris.

The country's Health Minister Hamad Hasan said the blast had caused a "very high number of injuries."

The country’s Red Cross, which appealed for blood donations, said there had been hundreds of casualties.

The cause of the blast has not been confirmed but officials pointed to an accident involving chemicals. Lebanon's internal security chief Abbas Ibrahim said authorities confiscated a large amount of sodium nitrate which was supposed to have been destroyed months ago. This is what caught alight, causing the huge second blast, he told the Lebanese press.

“It was a big explosion and then my house ceiling came down and all the windows were wrecked,” a journalist who lives in the Gemmayze area told The National. “I fell down on the floor and had to dig myself out of the apartment.”

Supermarket manager Bahij, 47, was driving his car in the Karantina area of the city, close to the blast site, when he was suddenly blown from the vehicle, causing injuries to his head and hands.

“This is insane. It is the first time I [have] come across such a massive explosion, I don’t know what it is” he told The National over the phone. “I only remember myself on the pavement being carried and attended to by two bystanders.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab appealed for international help following the “catastrophe”.

In his first comments since the explosion, Mr Diab said there would be a full investigation “to reveal facts regarding this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014.” He added that “those responsible will pay price for what happened today.”

Mr Diab spoke after he met with heads of the Lebanese security agencies, concerned ministries and other senior officials for an emergency discussion on dealing with the fallout of the blast.

The international community was quick to express solidarity with Lebanon. France, Iran and the United States all offered assistance. Israel, which last fought a war in Lebanon with Hezbollah in 2006, offered the Lebanese government "medical humanitarian aid" through diplomatic channels, an Israeli Defence Ministry statement said.

Hundreds of people wandered the streets in varying states of disarray late into the evening after the blast, many clutching elderly relatives and children injured by flying glass and debris. The chaos was heightened by a lack of information on what caused the explosion.

Video of the incident shared on social media showed a smaller explosion, which then set off another, larger explosion of a building.

Video of the incident shared on social media showed a smaller explosion, which then set off another, larger explosion of a building.

The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres away.

"I was walking back home, me and my friend in Hamra Street. Suddenly out of nowhere we heard a very very strong explosion, and we found the sky became filled with pink gas," said Lynn Darraj, a 15-year-old student at ABAT school in Beirut.

"It became all pink in colour, and the glass was flying, and there wasn't a single place left unshattered.

"There was a man who let us inside his shop and he hid us inside; and there were children crying."

"It was horrific; we are used to seeing this in movies only, not in real life. Old people, young people, all got burnt in the explosion, they became ashes."

Photos of the aftermath of the explosion showed huge damage to the city’s wheat silos, a landmark of Beirut, which are located at the port. The port was rebuilt and expanded after the 1990 civil war, under reconstruction plans envisaged by the late Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri, and new cranes installed to handle mega container ships.

However corruption has been a main impediment to the port resuming its prior role as a regional hub, businessmen said.

A senior Red Cross official told The National that there were more than 300 people brought to the American University of Beirut Medical Centre, taking the hospital to maximum capacity just like other major hospitals in Beirut.

For those less seriously injured, it was first aid kits and the kindness of others.

Marie, 86, sat on the street in the Gemmayze area, having her wounds tended to. She lives on the third floor of a nearby building and was standing near the window when it shattered from the force of the port blast, glass slicing her skin.

“I left my flat two hours ago and took my first aid kit with me to help people,” said Michael Aoun, a 24 year old doctor who is treating Marie. “This lady had over a dozen cuts all over her body. She was alone when I found her.”

Footage of the aftermath shared on social media appeared to show bodies strewn on the ground in the port area.

The blast, and huge damage it caused comes as Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades while trying to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Many have already begun to discuss how the poverty-stricken nation will rebuild given its financial predicament - officials are currently negotiating with the IMF for a bail-out.

Members of the Lebanese diaspora living around the world expressed fear for their families.

Nada, a Lebanese business executive living in Switzerland said she got through to her mother by phone. “She is shocked as all windows broke down in her apartment, but hamdellah she is fine!” she told The National. Nada’s mother lives in district of Mar Elias in West Beirut.

Updated: August 4, 2020 11:30 PM

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