2020 Beirut explosion
On 4 August 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, exploded, causing at least 200 deaths, 3 reported missing, 6,500 injuries, US$10–15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Around 2,750 tonnes of the substance (equivalent to around 1.1 kilotons of TNT) had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures for the previous six years, after having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the abandoned ship MV Rhosus.
The explosion was preceded by a fire in the same warehouse, but as of September 2020, the exact cause of the detonation is still under investigation.
Beirut Explosion 2020 Video Footage
The explosion was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine and parts of Europe, and was heard in Cyprus, more than 250 km (160 mi) away. It was detected by the United States Geological Survey as a seismic event of magnitude 3.3, and is considered one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history.
The Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency in response to the disaster. In its aftermath, protests erupted across Lebanon against the government for their failure to prevent the disaster, joining a larger series of protests which have been taking place in the country since 2019. On 10 August 2020, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the Lebanese cabinet resigned due to mounting political pressure exacerbated by the event.
The economy of Lebanon was in a state of crisis before the explosions, with the government having defaulted on debt, the pound plunging, and a poverty rate that had risen past 50%. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic had overwhelmed many of the country’s hospitals, several of which already were short of medical supplies and unable to pay staff due to a financial crisis. The morning before the explosion, the head of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which served as the main coronavirus medical facility in Lebanon, warned that it was approaching full capacity.
The government-owned Port of Beirut serves as the main maritime entry point into Lebanon and a vital piece of infrastructure for the importation of scarce goods. The Beirut Naval Base is a part of the port. The port included four basins, sixteen quays, twelve warehouses, a large container terminal, and grain silos with a total capacity of 120,000 tonnes that served as a strategic reserve of cereals for the country. The silos were built in the 1960s as part of an expansion plan advanced by Palestinian banker Yousef Beidas.
On 27 September 2013, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship MV Rhosus set sail from Batumi, Georgia, to Beira, Mozambique, carrying 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate. Rhosus was owned by a company based in Panama but was regarded by the captain as under the de facto ownership of Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin.
The shipment had been ordered by an African explosives manufacturing company for mining in Mozambique. However, reporting by Der Spiegel has found that it was not Russian national Grechushkin who owned the Rhosus, but rather the Cypriot businessman Charalambos Manoli, who maintained a relationship with the bank used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
On 21 November 2013, the ship made port in Beirut. Some sources said it was forced to port due to mechanical issues and possibly engine problems, while other sources claimed the owner did not have sufficient funds to pay tolls for the Suez Canal and attempted to take on a shipment of heavy machinery in Beirut. The heavy machinery was stacked on top of the doors to the cargo space containing the ammonium nitrate, causing the doors to buckle, which damaged the ship. After inspection by port state control, the Rhosus was deemed unseaworthy, and was forbidden to set sail. Eight Ukrainians and one or two Russians were aboard, and with the help of the Ukrainian consul, five Ukrainians were repatriated, leaving four crew members to care for the ship.
Grechushkin went bankrupt, and after the charterers lost interest in the cargo, he abandoned the ship. The Rhosus soon ran out of provisions, and the remaining crew were unable to disembark due to immigration restrictions. Creditors also obtained three arrest warrants against the ship. According to Lloyd’s List, the Beirut port authority seized the ship on 4 February 2014, due to US$100,000 in unpaid bills. The ship had accrued port fees and been fined for refusing cargo. Lawyers argued for the crew’s repatriation on compassionate grounds, because of the danger posed by the cargo still aboard the ship, and an Urgent Matters judge in Beirut allowed them to return home. They had been forced to live aboard the ship for about a year.
By order of the judge, the cargo was brought ashore in 2014 and placed in Warehouse 12 at the port, where it remained for the next six years. The MV Rhosus sank in the harbour in February 2018.
Customs officials had sent letters to judges requesting a resolution to the issue of the confiscated cargo, proposing that the ammonium nitrate be either exported, given to the army, or sold to the private Lebanese Explosives Company. Letters had been sent on 27 June and 5 December 2014, 6 May 2015, 20 May and 13 October 2016, and 27 October 2017. One of the letters sent in 2016 noted that judges had not replied to previous requests, and “pleaded”:
In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount …
On the afternoon of 4 August 2020, a fire broke out in Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut. Warehouse 12 was waterside and next to the grain silos; the warehouse stored the ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated from MV Rhosus, alongside a “stash” of fireworks. Around 17:55 local time (14:55 UTC), a team of nine firefighters and one paramedic, known as Platoon 5, was dispatched to fight the fire. On arrival the fire crew reported there was “something wrong” as the fire was huge and produced “a crazy sound”.
The first explosion, at about 18:07 local time (15:07 UTC), likely triggered by the stored fireworks, sent up a large cloud of smoke and a crackle of bright firework flashes, and heavily damaged the structure of the warehouse itself. The second explosion, 33 to 35 seconds later, was much more substantial. It rocked central Beirut and sent a red-orange cloud into the air, which was briefly surrounded by a white condensation cloud. The orange-red colour of the smoke was caused by nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of ammonium nitrate decomposition. The second explosion was felt in northern Israel and in Cyprus, 240 kilometers (150 miles) away.
Despite inefficient transmission of the shock waves into the ground, the United States Geological Survey measured the event as a 3.3 local magnitude earthquake, while the Jordan Seismological Observatory reported that it was equivalent to a 4.5 local magnitude earthquake. Specialists from the University of Sheffield estimated that the explosion was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. The Beirut explosion was similar to explosions of large amounts of ammonium nitrate in Tianjin, China, in 2015; in Texas City, United States, in 1947; or in Toulouse, France in 2001.
By the next morning, the main fire that led to the explosion had been extinguished.
Cause of Beirut Explosion 2020
Warehouses in the port were used to store explosives and chemicals including nitrates, common components of fertilizers and explosives. The General Director of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, said the ammonium nitrate confiscated from Rhosus had exploded. The 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate was the equivalent to around 1,155 tonnes of TNT (4,830 gigajoules). An independent estimate by the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization based on infrasonic data obtained an explosive yield equivalent to 0.5–1.1 kT of TNT.
The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International said that, according to attendees of a Higher Defence Council briefing, the fire was ignited by workers welding a door at a warehouse. A former port worker said that “there were 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks inside warehouse 12” that he had personally seen.
An American diplomatic cable on 7 August said it “remains unclear … whether fireworks, ammunition or something else stored next to the ammonium nitrate might have been involved” in worsening the warehouse fire and igniting the ammonium nitrate. A port worker said Warehouse 12 was “not in regular use”, and that “those in charge only used to open the warehouse to stack inside it materials confiscated upon judicial orders or perilous products”, though he had not seen this to include any armaments.
200 people were confirmed dead (with an additional three missing), and more than 6,500 people were injured. Foreigners from at least 22 countries were among the casualties. Furthermore, at least 108 Bangladeshi nationals were injured in the blasts, becoming the most affected foreign community. Also, several United Nations naval peacekeepers who were members of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were injured by the blast. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 34 refugees were among the dead and missing, and an additional 124 refugees were injured. At least 150 people became permanently disabled as a result of the explosion.
All ten members of Platoon 5 died at the scene of the blast. Nazar Najarian, the secretary-general of the Kataeb Party, died after suffering severe head injuries. French architect Jean-Marc Bonfils died after suffering serious injuries at his apartment in the East Village building in Mar Mikhaël. He had been live-streaming the fire at the warehouse on Facebook at the time. Lady Cochrane Sursock, philanthropist and matriarch of the Sursock family, died on 31 August due to injuries sustained from the blast.
Damage Beirut Explosion 2020
The explosion overturned cars and stripped steel-framed buildings of their cladding. Within the port area, the explosion destroyed a section of shoreline and left a crater roughly 124 m (407 ft) in diameter and 43 m (141 ft) in depth. Homes as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) away were damaged by the blast, and up to 300,000 people were left homeless by the explosion. The grain silos were largely destroyed, exacerbating food shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe financial crisis. About 15,000 tonnes (14,800 long tons; 16,500 short tons) of grain were lost, leaving the country with less than a month’s worth of grain in reserve. However, part of the silos’ sturdy structure survived, shielding a large area of western Beirut from greater destruction.
The damage from the blast affected over half of Beirut, with the likely cost above $15 billion and insured losses at around $3 billion. Approximately ninety percent of the hotels in the city were damaged and three hospitals completely destroyed, while two more suffered damage. Dozens of injured people brought to nearby hospitals could not be admitted because of the damage to the hospitals. Windows and other installations of glass across the city were shattered.
Saint George Hospital, one of the city’s largest medical facilities, was less than 1 kilometer (5⁄8 mile) from the explosion, and was so badly damaged that staff were forced to treat patients in the street. Four nurses died from the initial blast, fifteen patients died after their ventilators stopped working, and several child cancer patients were injured by flying glass. Within hours, after discharging all its patients, and sending some to other facilities, Saint George Hospital was forced to close. The hospital’s director of intensive care, Dr. Joseph Haddad, was quoted as saying: “There is no St. George Hospital any more. It’s fallen, it’s on the floor … It’s all destroyed. All of it.”
The Sursock Museum was severely damaged, as were many of its artworks, and some ceramics were completely destroyed. Sursock Palace, a 160-year-old Beirut landmark that was listed as a cultural heritage site, also sustained heavy damage, as did its many artworks.
The Armenian Catholicosate in Antelias sustained great damage. All the stained glass windows of the National Evangelical Church were blown out. The FIBA Asia headquarters was also heavily damaged.
Embassies in and around Beirut reported varying degrees of damage to their buildings; the embassies of Argentina, Australia, Finland, Cyprus, and the Netherlands, which were close to the blast, sustained heavy damage, while minor damage was reported from the South Korean, Hungarian, Kazakh, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian Turkish embassies.
Investigation of Beirut Explosion 2020
The government formed an investigation committee led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which will submit its findings to the Council of Ministers of Lebanon by 11 August. The committee includes the justice, interior and defence ministers, and the head of the top four security agencies: the Army, General Security, Internal Security Forces, and State Security. The investigation is to examine whether the explosion was an accident or due to negligence, and if it was caused by a bomb or another external interference. President Aoun rejected calls for an international probe despite demands from world leaders.
On 5 August, the Council agreed to place sixteen Beirut port officials who had overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, overseen by the army, pending the investigation into the explosions. In addition, the general manager of the port Hassan Koraytem and the former director general of Lebanon’s customs authority Shafiq Merhi were arrested. Later, on 17 August, the incumbent director-general of Lebanon’s customs authority Badri Daher was also arrested. Also, former ministers of both finance and public works are due to be interrogated by a judge appointed by the Lebanon’s High Judicial Council. In the meantime, Lebanon’s state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered a travel ban on seven individuals including Hassan Koraytem.
On 12 August, Lebanon’s caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm commented on the investigation by saying: “Much of the criticism is warranted due to the slow pace of work and some politicisation, but this case is a chance for the Lebanese judiciary to prove they can do their jobs and win back the confidence of the people”. On 19 August, a Lebanon judge ordered the arrests of more suspects over the explosion, making the total number of accused 25.
Lebanese judge Fadi Sawan, who has been responsible for the investigation, summoned former Minister of Transportation and Public Works Ghazi Aridi, Labor Ministers Ghazi Zaiter, Youssef Fenianos and Michel Najjar, General Director of the Lebanese State Security Tony Saliba, Director General of Lebanon’s Land and Maritime Transport division, Abdul-Hafeez Al-Qaisi, and General Director of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim.
In late August 2020, the new general manager of the port, Bassem Al Qaisi, mentioned that the port became 100% operational, and that it had received 78,000 tonnes of grain, flour, wheat and corn in the past two weeks.
Since the explosion, small fires have occurred within the damaged sections of the Port of Beirut. On 10 September 2020, a large fire erupted in a cooking oil warehouse and food parcels belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), then spread to a stock of rubber tires in the port’s duty-free zone. Following black smoke rising above the city’s skyline, panic broke out due to the fear of another explosion, and motivated people to flee the city. The fire was brought under control, by fire personnel on the ground and by Lebanese Air Force helicopters dropping water.