BEIRUT – A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
It was not clear what caused the blast, which struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences center GFZ, and was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean. Lebanon's interior minister said it appeared that a large cache of ammonium nitrate in the port had detonated.
The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic and financial crisis.
For hours after the explosion, the most destructive in all of Lebanon’s troubled history, ambulances rushed in from around the country to carry away the wounded. Hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies, and generators to keep their lights on.
For blocks around the port, bloodied residents staggered through streets lined with overturned cars and littered with rubble from shattered buildings. Windows and doors were blown out kilometers (miles) away, including at the city's only international airport. Army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
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 at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014. Witnesses reported seeing an orange cloud like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.
Videos showed what appeared to be a fire erupting nearby just before, and local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering the more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and generating a shock wave.
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said the blast started as small explosions like firecrackers. Then, he said, he was thrown off his feet.