A seemingly ordinary day of August 4, 2020, in Beirut ended at a catastrophic note. An explosion at the Beirut port shook the Lebanese capital to bits and pieces. There was devastation everywhere. 130 people killed and over 5,000 injured are the casualty numbers. Wasn’t the Coronavirus pandemic enough to reign horror that we needed another disaster like this?
2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a dockside warehouse for over six years ignited and exigency ensued. The blast was preceded by a large fire at the Port of Beirut, on the city’s northern Mediterranean coast. Gray and white smoke was seen coming from the warehouse. Shortly after the fire, there was a large explosion, followed by an array of smaller blasts. About 30 seconds later, there was a massive explosion that sent a huge grey cloud into the air and a supersonic blast wave radiated through the city.
The deafening blast destroyed the neighbouring dockside area, creating a crater approximately 140 metres wide, which filled with seawater. The warehouse where the fire and explosions were observed was completely blasted to pieces and an adjacent grain silo was heavily damaged. Satellite images show entirely destroyed ports, docks and ships blown up. Around 300,000 people were left temporarily homeless.
Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate are regarded as a major fire hazard, with multiple reported cases across the world. The explosion of large storage can result due to a prior fire. There have been several cases of the ammonium nitrate explosion in the past including the ones with a large number of fatalities like in China – 2015 and in Texas – 1947.
But how did these large amounts of chemicals end up at the port? Why was it stored for so many years? Why wasn’t it safely disposed of?
So many questions and we hardly have answers.
What we do know is that the explosives came to the port on a semi-functioning, leaky Russian cargo ship, 7 years ago. The ship was not meant to stop at Beirut but according to the captain “the owners were being greedy”. The ship was carrying 2,750 tonnes of highly combustible chemicals from Georgia to Mozambique when the Russian owners ordered the ship to divert to Beirut and load heavy road equipment like road-rollers. The ship was unable to load extra cargo as it was old and not strong enough. It then got caught up in a
lengthy legal dispute over port fees. The ship was arrested at the port and the captain and crew members were abandoned on the ship with limited supplies of food or water for 11 months while the dispute continued to drag on. Once they left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse. On Tuesday, this stockpile caught fire leading to a colossal explosion injuring thousands.
Taking a cue from Beirut, Chennai sprang into action and is in process of disposing 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at their docks. Beirut’s horror has alerted officials around the world.
Few men’s greed has led to this catastrophe. An unforgivable, unfathomable, unjust day. Hence as Rusty Eric said, “As long as greed is stronger than compassion, there will always be suffering.” Beirut witnessed this as the city obliterated.
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