Suspected ammonia explosion at Beirut port claims more than 100 lives

The aftermath of yesterday's blast around the Port of Beirut, on 5 August 2020. The explosion has injured thousands and wrecked buildings across the Lebanese capital. Credit: Anwar AMRO/AFP/via Getty Images

A massive explosion, emanating from the Port of Beirut, has rocked the city, totalling ships at anchor there, causing deaths, injuries, and damage to buildings as far as 5 km away.

Preliminary reports issued by security consultant Dryad Global and the Associated Press suggest the blast originated in a warehouse with a large number of combustible materials, including ammonium nitrate and other nitrate-based chemicals, fireworks, and natural gas. However, this estimate has since been narrowed down, authorities claim, to a store of some 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. A statement by Lebanon’s head of general security indicated that some of the material had been recently confiscated from a ship.

The number of deaths is still unclear, the figure having jumped by 30 in the last two hours at time of writing. Some 4,000 injury reports have also emerged, which include vast numbers of casualties considerably away from the blast, including blunt trauma from collapsed building floors and lacerations by broken glass.

Image from IHS Markit AISLive data shows the vessels that were nearby the blast. Credit: IHS Markit Maritime & Trade

According to the IHS Markit AISLive data, general cargo vessels Raouf H and Mero Star; local tugs Baltagi 19, 20, and 17; passenger vessel Orient Queen; car carrier Jouri; tug DPS Tramontane; and car carrier City of Rome were docked at the port and in close proximity to the blast. There were also at least two old livestock carriers, ABOU KARIM I and ABOU KARIM III, laid up for some years at the end of Berth 09, which was nearest to the explosion. Both vessels are amazingly still afloat, but quite possibly have also received considerable blast damage.

The story is still unfolding and the status of the vessels is as-yet unknown; however, it is almost certain that some or all of them will have suffered loss of life and catastrophic damage. Video footage from the scene appears to show one vessel entirely destroyed, and another larger ship with a fire raging on the bridge. Meanwhile, the port itself is strewn with debris, including obliterated containers and cranes.

While Israel has historically bombed Lebanon during Israeli-Lebanese conflicts, Dryad Maritime suggests that the port is not situated in a historical hot spot for military or terrorist operations and that the incident has the hallmarks of an industrial accident. “The presence of naval assets within the area is not indicative of any likelihood of potential targeting by foreign actors,” said a Dryad Global spokesperson. “The total death toll is likely to be high, due to the widespread destruction in downtown Beirut, which has included the widespread destruction of residential and commercial property.

Furthermore, the risk to vessels intending to transit to or in the vicinity of Beirut is not immediately escalated as a result of this incident. However, on account of the cessation of all operations at the port and potential for chemical contamination, all vessels should avoid [the area].”

The secretary general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Kitack Lim, issued a statement in response to the explosion, “I express my deepest condolences and sincerest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the government and people of Lebanon following the catastrophic explosions in the Port of Beirut yesterday. The port provides a vital artery bringing food, medicines, and supplies to the country and its destruction will have devastating consequences. The United Nations is assisting the immediate response to the incident. The IMO stands ready to assist in any way we can.”