Bodies lying on the ground, carcasses of cars and flattened warehouses. At the port of Beirut, two huge explosions on Tuesday caused scenes of devastation, sowing panic in the Lebanese capital. They left 73 dead and 3,700 injured.
“It was like an atomic bomb. I have seen everything (in my life), but nothing like it,” Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired professor, who has lived for over 60 years opposite the Harbor.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that these explosions were due in particular to the explosion of some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a substance which is used in the composition of certain fertilizers but also of explosives.
The director general of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, had previously indicated that the explosions were possibly due to “explosives confiscated for years”.
At around 6:00 p.m. local time (5:00 p.m. in Switzerland), a first explosion was heard in Beirut, an agglomeration of some two million inhabitants, followed by another, very powerful, which caused a gigantic mushroom in the sky. The buildings shook and the windows were smashed for miles around. The breath was felt as far as the island of Cyprus, more than 200 km away.
Swiss Ambassador injured
According to a latest provisional report from the Ministry of Health, at the end of the evening, at least 73 people were killed and 3,700 injured. Hospitals in the capital, already facing the Covid-19 pandemic, are saturated.
The UN mission in Lebanon claimed that peacekeepers were seriously injured on board a ship docked in the port. Staff members of the embassies of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium were also injured, according to the foreign ministers of these countries.
The explosion also affected the Swiss embassy and residence. Swiss Ambassador to Beirut Monika Schmutz was slightly injured and was hospitalized, the Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) said. The rest of the Embassy staff are in good health. The FDFA does not yet have any information on other Swiss victims.
In the streets of Beirut, soldiers evacuated stunned residents, some covered in blood, T-shirts around their heads to heal their wounds. Cars, open airbags, but also buses, have been abandoned in the middle of the roads. Houses near the port were razed or badly damaged.
“It’s a disaster inside (the port). There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are taking the bodies away,” a soldier near the port told AFP. A man in tears was trying to get news of his son from a soldier.
Several hours after the tragedy, helicopters continued to pour water in an attempt to extinguish the flames. The port sector was cordoned off by security forces, which only allowed civil defense, ambulances with howling sirens and firefighters to pass.
In addition to the mind-boggling images of the explosions, photos posted on social media showed damage inside the terminal at Beirut International Airport, located nine kilometers from the site. A ship stowed opposite the port caught fire, but it was not possible to determine if there were any passengers on board.
After the tragedy, the Supreme Defense Council declared Beirut a “disaster city”, and President Michel Aoun deplored “a major disaster”. The Prime Minister declared Wednesday a day of national mourning.
He promised those responsible would be “held to account”. “It is unacceptable that a shipment of ammonium nitrate, estimated at 2,750 tonnes, has been present for six years in a warehouse, without precautionary measures. It is unacceptable and we cannot be silent,” said Hassan Diab in front of the Superior Council of Defense, according to remarks reported by a spokesperson at a press conference.
Mr. Diab called on “friendly countries” to provide emergency aid, as this tragedy adds to the immense distress of the Lebanese: the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades, marked by currency depreciation unprecedented hyperinflation, massive layoffs and drastic banking restrictions.
Paris announced the delivery of “French aid and resources” and the United States said it was “ready to provide (their) assistance to the Lebanese people” to help them “recover from this horrible tragedy”, stressing that it was an “additional test in a time of already deep crisis”.