'The Apocalypse' blast shatters Beirut

Top News | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 6 Aug 2020

Rescuers searched for survivors in Beirut yesterday after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighborhoods, killing more than 100 people, injuring thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.

The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate - used in fertilizer - left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt on the island of Cyprus, 240 kilometers away.

Beirut governor Marwan Abboud described the disaster as "an apocalyptic situation" that he estimated might have made 300,000 people homeless.

The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and coronavirus infections.

The scale of the destruction was such that the Lebanese capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with many people wandering homeless and thousands crammed into overwhelmed hospitals.

"I saw people screaming, covered in blood, homes smashed, roads like Hiroshima or like a tsunami hit," said Elie Zakaria, a resident of a district near the port. The amount of destruction caused by the civil war between 1975 and 1990 was matched in seconds by a blast that leveled buildings within a radius of several hundred meters of the port.

A resident of Mar Mikhail, one of the worst-hit districts, said she saw bodies strewn in the middle of a street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast. Many people were watching and filming after an earlier and smaller explosion was heard in the port and started a fire.

Then came the big blast, with a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shock wave engulfing everything around it.

The mushroom-shaped explosion, which seismologists logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, and the scope of the damage drew many nuclear analogies.

"The Apocalypse" read the headline of L'Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon.

Later, thousands of families drove out of Beirut seeking shelter, but many were left stranded without a roof, unable to go anywhere or unwilling to leave gutted homes to looters. The rescue effort was slowed at night by the lack of electricity - already intermittent at best in much of the city.

Security forces sealed off a huge area around the port, searching for bodies and survivors under rubble while rescue boats scoured the waters off the coast.

Hospitals already stretched to the brink by a spike in virus cases in recent days were pushed to new limits by the influx of injured and turned many away.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances at the port that led to the explosion as "unacceptable" and vowed to investigate.

Messages of support and offers of help poured in from around the world for Lebanon, whose economy was already on its knees after it defaulted on sovereign debt this year.

A devaluation has sent poverty levels soaring to an estimated 50 percent of the population, and for a country reliant on imports the obliteration of the port signaled more hardship ahead.

Criticism of the government was already rife, and people said a disaster of such magnitude could only strike in a state whose institutions are crippled by incompetence and corruption.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS



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