Abandoned ship Rhosus suspected as origin of explosive Beirut cargo

A destroyed port the day after a massive explosion on 5 August 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: Fadel Itani/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A grim timeline has emerged in the ongoing investigation following Rhosus, the ship which allegedly originally carried the 2,750-tonne cargo of ammonium nitrate to Beirut, in the lead-up to the catastrophic warehouse explosion on Tuesday.

At time of writing, the blast is known to have killed at least 137 people, wounded some 5,000, rendered 300,000 homeless, and left Lebanon with only a month’s worth of stored grain. An investigation committee has been formed, consisting of Lebanon’s justice, defence, and interior ministers; the director general of the Internal Security Forces; Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the director general of General Directorate of General Security; and the director general of General Directorate of State Security.

The Moldova-flagged vessel had been en route from Batumi to Mozambique, departing on 27 July 2013 according to IHS Markit AISLive data, reportedly carrying the chemical – a constituent of fertiliser and some explosives. The vessel made several stops along the voyage, according to the historical AIS data, first anchored off Zeytinburnu, Turkey, on 1 October, then shifting to anchorage off Tuzla, Turkey, a major ship repair port, on 3 October. The vessel then continued the journey on 16 October, stopping and anchoring off Piraeus, Greece, on 21 October, before departing on 14 November and arriving at Beirut on 20 November. There, it was arrested by port authorities.

Subsequent to legal disputes with the Lebanese authorities, the vessel’s ship manager, Interfleet Shipmanagement, allegedly abandoned Rhosus and its eight crew, which later dwindled to four as the others were repatriated. During this time, the charterer, according to an October 2015 report in The Arrest News, “lost interest in the cargo”. The Arrest News is a quarterly newsletter released by shiparrested.com website.

“The vessel quickly ran out of stores, bunker, and provisions,” the report added, leaving four crew to reportedly scratch a living aboard with no wages, food, heat, power, or communications access provided for a year until they were finally repatriated. If ammonium nitrate was in fact incorrectly stored on board, an explosion could have destroyed the ship and killed the men at any time during their involuntary stewardship.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” The Arrest News noted. “The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

SAS has reached out to law firm Baroudi & Associates regarding the vessel, and is awaiting their response.

After being offloaded from the ship, the cargo had apparently been stored in an onshore warehouse since September 2014 without further incident, until reports claim a decision was made to prevent theft and possible misuse of the substance by welding the holes in the warehouse shut. According to reporting in Lebanese news service LVC International, it was sparks from this weld job that ignited the ammonium nitrate and caused the blast.

According to IHS Markit AISLive data, Rhosus was first berthed at Berth 14, Dock 4, before shifting to Berth 11, Dock 3, which is just opposite the blast site.

“I will not rest until we find the person responsible for what happened, in order to bring him to justice and impose the most severe punishments on him, because it is unacceptable for the party ammonium nitrate, estimated at 2,750 tonnes, was in stock for six years without any preventive measures,” said Prime Minister Hassan Diab yesterday.

The vessel owner at the time of the arrest, Russian national Grechushkin Igor, could not be reached for comment.

 

Additional reporting written by Gabriella Twining, SAS reporter.