Lebanon in mourning after deadly Beirut blasts

Hospitals struggle to cope with thousands of wounded after huge blast ripped through the capital’s port

Photo : Anwar Amro

Lebanon is in mourning and surveying the damage to its capital, Beirut, after a massive explosion ripped through the city’s port and surrounding areas on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring 4,000 with many feared to be still trapped under rubble.

In a country already reeling from an economic crisis, the full scale of the calamity became apparent as the city woke on Wednesday morning, with rescue teams searching through the debris of ruined neighbourhoods for the missing, and hospitals buckling under the weight of thousands of casualties.

A Lebanese Red Cross official said on Wednesday morning the death toll had reached at least 100, with smoke still rising from the port and downtown streets littered with upturned cars and the ruins of shattered buildings.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, Georges Kettaneh, told a local broadcaster. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Ambulances wailed throughout the night and mountains of glass were swept from shattered apartments on to the streets below. Exhausted emergency workers trudged through the pre-dawn gloom, some holding sledgehammers, others carrying water. A car park in the Gemmayze district near the port had been turned into a triage centre. Orange plastic stretchers, slick with blood, were lined up from one side to the other.

Soldiers at the site cleared rubble as helicopters passed over dropping water to extinguish the smouldering remains. Aerial images of the port showed a deep crater of blown-out land.

Hospitals were overrun with wounded people and others searching for loved ones, with pages springing up online listing pictures of the missing and begging for information of their whereabouts.

The governor of Beirut governor, Marwan Abboud, told a local radio station that more than 100 people remained missing, including several firefighters. “Beirut has never gone through what it went through yesterday,” he said.

A two-week state of emergency has been recommended by the president, after authorities blamed a huge store of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate for the explosion that sent a shockwave across the city, shattering windows, collapsing roofs and rendering homes uninhabitable.

Amid the shock, there was a growing mood of anger directed towards the country’s political class, whose reputation is already at an all-time low over the country’s economic implosion and growing coronavirus caseload.

“If any of them will hold each other to account, I might change my mind,” said a shop worker, Khaled Qudsi. “But you can bet your life that if any of their commercial interests were tied up to this accident, it will be swept away and blamed on a straw man.”

The blast, at 6.08pm local time (1608 BST) on Tuesday, was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, 120 miles away. It left cars with blown-out windows strewn on highways and a city in shock. Footage posted on social media showed entire neighbourhoods in ruins.

“There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” the health minister, Hamad Hasan, told Reuters.

President Michel Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government would release 100bn lira (£50.5m) of emergency funds.

In the immediate aftermath, Beirutis stood among the dust and the debris, the shards of glass and the burning buildings, and cried for help.

At the port on Tuesday evening, a woman in her 20s stood at the gates screaming at security forces, asking about the fate of her brother, an employee inside.

“His name is Jad, his eyes are green,” she pleaded, but security forces were resolute in refusing entry. Nearby another woman almost fainted while asking about her brother who also worked at the port.

A soldier stationed there said: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”

Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years. He scheduled an urgent cabinet meeting for Wednesday, and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

Video footage appeared to show two blasts, with some witness accounts suggesting the initial conflagration sounded “like fireworks”. The first plume of smoke was then suddenly consumed by a massive fireball and white cloud, sending a shockwave scudding across the city.

The blasts destroyed wheat in the port’s granaries, prompting fears of a looming food crisis across a nation already suffering bread shortages and paralysed by the twin crises of coronavirus and an economic meltdown.

Lebanon imports about 90% of its wheat – used for making the country’s staple flatbread – with the vast majority coming through the destroyed port. The port granaries held about 85% of the country’s cereals.

The most immediate fear was for the casualties, and a health system already straining because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the aftermath of the blast, thousands of people sought treatment in nearby hospitals, which were struggling to cope, or had been incapacitated by the blast.

A doctor at St George’s hospital, less than 2km (1.2 miles) from the blast, said injured people were being brought for treatment but the hospital had been destroyed.

“They’re bringing people to the hospital but we can’t receive them,” he said. “They’re treating them outside in the street. The hospital is broken, the ER is broken.”

A security source told AFP that victims of the blast had been taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were overwhelmed with wounded. Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to help.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” Kettaneh, the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, told the broadcaster Al Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.” The Red Cross issued an urgent call for blood donations.

The US embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.

President Donald Trump fuelled the confusion swirling in the hours following the explosion by referring to it in off-the-cuff remarks as “an attack”, adding that “some of our great generals” had told him “it was a bomb of some kind”.

Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear from where Trump was receiving his information but that initial information did not appear to show the explosion was an attack.

Israel has denied any responsibility and offered humanitarian and medical aid.

The final death toll is expected to climb significantly as rescue teams begin combing through damaged buildings.

Witnesses described scenes of chaos and panic.

“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 1975-90 civil war, she said.

“All the buildings around here have collapsed. I’m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark.”

The destruction comes as Lebanon is grappling with an economic crisis that has slashed incomes and jobs and led to soaring nationwide poverty, and also amid rising tensions between Israel and Hezbollah along Lebanon’s southern border.

The British prime minister confirmed that UK nationals were among those caught up in the explosions. All staff at the British embassy in Beirut had been accounted for, but some had sustained “non-life-threatening injuries”, Boris Johnson said.

The Australian prime minister said one Australian national had died.

The United Nations reported that 48 of its staff in Beirut, 27 of their family members and three visitors were among the wounded.