Beirut, Lebanon, searches for survivors of massive explosion

BEIRUT – Blood stained the asphalt Wednesday morning as the streets of Beirut teemed with rescuers and bystanders a day after a massive explosion killed at least 100 and injured 4,000 people in Lebanon’s capital.

Smoke was still rising from the port, where a towering building of silos was half destroyed, spilling out mounds of grain. Hangars around it were completely toppled. Much of downtown was littered with damaged cars, mounds of debris and shattered glass, which shopkeepers tried to clean up.

Angelique Sabounjian, 34, was in a coffeehouse called “sip” near the blast. She left just as the second explosion happened.

“I felt something hit my head, next thing I know I felt what I could describe as a warm fountain pouring from my head … we ran to the Red Cross center nearby. I saw bodies on the floor,” she said, adding that because she couldn’t get help there she tried to go to nearby hospitals, but they were demolished. “I don’t know how I got the energy and power to walk further with the blood flowing into my mouth and nostrils.”

Eventually, she was helped. Doctors told her she swallowed more than a liter of blood.

An official cause for the most powerful explosion to ever hit the beleagured city remains unknown.

“I was sitting on the stairs … next thing I remember I was on the ground covered with shattered glass and people screaming,” said Shehadeh Khalaf, 67, who said he was helped at the hospital but left because there were so many more people in dire need. “I’m still covered in blood.”

The blast was felt as far away as Cyprus, and witnesses in the city described the aftermath as “raining glass.”

“The first blast happened, and the whole building shook. My mother ran to me, screaming ‘earthquake!’ That’s what we initially thought … then the second blast happened and all the glass shattered in my house,” said Hussein Al Haq, 22, who lives on the outskirts of Beirut. “My mother’s still shell-shocked today. If I lose her to the trauma, I’ll lose everything.”

Cause of the Beirut explosion

Although President Trump said Tuesday that the explosion looked like an attack, there was no evidence the explosion was an attack. Instead, many Lebanese blamed it on decades of corruption and poor governance by the entrenched political class that has ruled the tiny Mediterranean country since the civil war.

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a local TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship impounded in 2013.

Explosives experts and video footage suggested the ammonium nitrate may have been ignited by a fire at what appeared to be a nearby warehouse containing fireworks.

Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertilizer as well as explosives. It was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2,180 kilograms (4,800 pounds) of fertilizer and fuel oil ripped through a federal building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, appealed for international aid, saying: “We are witnessing a real catastrophe.” He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the disaster will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.

Search and rescue in Beirut

Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night.

Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.

In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defense workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble.

The blast severely damaged numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

Lebanon was already down

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its health system is confronting a coronavirus surge, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut which had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage.

There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over 1 million Syrians displaced by that country’s nearly decade-long civil war.

Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open a cluster of towering grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Estimates suggest some 85% of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. But he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more.

Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, with even Israel offering humanitarian assistance. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant group.

Lebanon’s economic crisis is rooted in decades of systemic corruption by political factions that exploit public institutions for the benefit of their supporters. Decades after the civil war, residents endure frequent power outages and poor public services.

Lebanese have held mass protests calling for sweeping political change since last autumn but few of their demands have been met as the economic situation has steadily worsened.

Beirut’s port and the customs authority are notoriously corrupt. Like nearly all public institutions, they are controlled by Lebanon’s political factions, including Hezbollah.