At least 30 killed, thousands wounded as explosions rock Beirut

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020.
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020.

BEIRUT — Two explosions shook Beirut on Tuesday, the second one with enough force to break windows over a radius of miles, damaging and shaking buildings, wounding hundreds of people and strewing debris over a wide area.

Lebanon’s health minister, Hamad Hassan, said that at least 30 people had died and 2,500 suffered injuries. With the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, the figures were likely to go higher.

Just one hospital, Rizk Hospital, said 400 people had gone there to be treated for injuries suffered in the disaster, according to the National News Agency, indicating how widespread the destruction was.

Videos showed a shock wave erupting from the second explosion, knocking people down and enveloping much of the center city in a cloud of dust and smoke. Cars were overturned and streets were blocked by debris, forcing many injured people to walk to hospitals.

Flames continued to rise from the rubble well after the explosions, and a cloud of smoke, tinted pink in the sunset, rose thousands of feet into the sky.

Videos of the aftermath posted online showed wounded people bleeding amid the dust and rubble, and damage where flying debris had punched holes in walls and furniture. On social media, people reported damage to homes and cars far from the port.

The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients. Patients were transported to hospitals outside Beirut because those in the city were at capacity.

The disaster may have started with a fire at a warehouse, state-run media said.

“Highly explosive materials,” seized by the government years ago, were stored where the explosions occurred, said Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service, according to the National News Agency.

Ibrahim did not say what those materials were, but he warned against getting “ahead of the investigation” and speculating about a terrorist act.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised statement, “Facts on this dangerous depot, which has existed since 2014 or the past six years, will be announced.”

“What happened today will not come to pass without accountability,” Diab said. “Those responsible will pay a price for this catastrophe.” he said. “This is a promise to the martyrs and wounded people. This is a national commitment.”

At least one explosion, at about 6 p.m., stemmed from a fire at a warehouse at Beirut’s port, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency. Then a second one, much larger than the first, carried enough force to overturn cars, damage and shake buildings across the city and strew, debris over a wide area.

The larger explosion blew out the glass from balconies and windows of buildings several miles away from the port and at least one building collapsed from the force of the blast. One resident said the streets looked like they were “cobbled in glass.”

There were local reports that the warehouse contained fireworks, and in several videos posted online, colored flashes could be seen in the dark smoke rising from the fire, just before the second explosion.

The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, speaking on television, could not say what had caused the explosion. Breaking into tears, he called it a national catastrophe.

The secretary-general of the Kataeb political party was killed in the blast, and among those injured was Kamal Haye, the chairman of the state-owned electricity company, who was in critical condition, the news agency reported.

Diab announced that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning, the National News Agency reported. The Lebanese presidency said on Twitter that President Michel Aoun had instructed the military to aid in the response and called an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defense Council on Tuesday evening.

Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan announced that his ministry would cover the costs of treating the wounded at hospitals, the National News Agency reported. It said the decision covered both hospitals that have contracts with the ministry as well as those that don’t.

The explosions hit Beirut’s northern, industrial waterfront, little more than a mile away from the Grand Serail palace, where Lebanon’s prime minister is based. Many landmarks, including hospitals, mosques, churches and universities are nearby.

They erupted next to a tall building called Beirut Port Silos, at or near a structure identified on maps as a warehouse. Videos showed only twisted metal and chunks of concrete where that warehouse had been, some of it identifiable as the remains of trucks and shipping containers.

When the explosion struck, meetings were in full swing less than a mile away, at the hillside headquarters of the Kataeb Party, a Christian political group that was once one of Lebanon’s most powerful.

The blast shook the building so badly that party members thought a bomb had gone off inside. As they collected their nerves and their belonging, they saw that the party’s general secretary, Nazar Najarian, had been wounded by falling debris. Najarian, known by the nickname Nazo, died of his injuries.

“He had been through explosions, assassination attempts, wars with the Palestinians and Syrians, Nazo saw it all,” said Elias Hankach, a Kataeb parliamentarian. “Our headquarters looks like a bomb went off inside. The inside is a mess, it’s madness.”

He said the party was waiting for clarity on whether the blast was an attack, the kind of crude tool used for decades to shape Lebanon’s political landscape, or just an accident resulting from mismanagement. If it turned out to be accidental, he said, then the disaster is not particularly surprising, the product of “cumulative nonchalance at all levels.”

“Whether you talk about the economy, safety standards, the port, the corruption — none of the country’s issues have had a serious attempt at resolution,” Hankach said. “We are living in this doomed management of the country.”

The severity of the explosions recalled the days when bombings and mayhem were a regular fact of life in Beirut, both during its 1975-1990 civil war and its aftermath, including sporadic conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah.

But if the latest explosions Tuesday were intentional, they would shatter a prolonged stretch of relative calm in the Lebanese capital. An Israeli intelligence official denied any Israeli involvement in the incident.

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