Beirut blast: Port officials under house arrest as negligence suspected as cause of chemical explosion

This video contains distressing images
play-icon Created with Sketch.
  • Video report by ITV News correspondent Emma Murphy

A number of Beirut's port officials have been placed under house arrest as Lebanon's ruling class vowed to come down hard on those responsible for Tuesday's explosion.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilisers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

On Wednesday, the hunt for survivors from the explosion continued, as the death toll rose to at least 135 people with 5,000 were injured.

Lebanese health minister Hamad Hasan said dozens of people are still missing.

State prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

The move comes after a letter was published online purportedly from the head of the customs department warning of “dangers if the materials remain where they are regarding the safety of (port) employees” and asking for guidance on how to remove it.

  • ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo on how vast stockpiles of ammonium nitrate came to be stored in a hangar in Beirut's port:

The 2017 letter to a judge, which could not be immediately verified, claims that similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It is not known if there was ever a response.

If authentic, it could deepen the belief expressed by some Lebanese that widespread mismanagement, negligence and corruption among the country’s ruling class is to blame for the explosion.

The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.

Lebanon has declared a two-week state of emergency. Credit: AP

The Lebanese government has declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time, as speculation mounts that negligence might be to blame.

The damage caused by the blast is estimated to cost billions to a country already on its knees economically.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated losses from the blast to be between $10-15 billion and said that nearly 300,000 people have been made homeless.

$10-15 bn

Estimated losses due to the blast


Estimated number of homeless due to the blast

President Michael Aoun told a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished.

Emma Murphy reports from the ground in Beirut:

Loved ones waited all night for news of friends and family who had gone missing, as hospitals were overwhelmed dealing with the dead and injured. Others posted on social media in a desperate bid to track down relatives.

Smoke was still billowing from the epicentre of Tuesday's blast, which is thought to have started with a fire which detonated the stockpile of ammonium nitrate.

Buildings up to 15 miles away were damaged by the explosion, which experts say was felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles across the Mediterranean.

It is understood there have been no reports of British fatalities so far.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has promised a £5 million support package for Lebanon following the devastating Beirut blast.

Mr Raab said he had spoken to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab and pledged to “stand by the Lebanese people in their time of need”.

He said: "It's a devastating explosion. There's clearly both loss of life but also wider damage in Beirut.

"We're not sure on the precise figures in relation to UK nationals there, we'll obviously want to bottom out that in the days ahead. We have a consulate team there which are monitoring that very carefully."

The Foreign Secretary said the support would include “search and rescue, humanitarian assistance up to £5 million, as well as expert medical support”.

A Royal Navy survey ship could also assist in assessing the damage to Beirut’s port, he added.

ITV News ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine on how Beirut, beleaguered by mismanagement, can rebuild after the disaster:

French president Emmanuel Macron said he would be visiting the country on Thursday, while the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Poland and the Netherlands have also offered to send emergency rescue workers and equipment to help in the rescue efforts.

An army helicopter drops water at the scene of Tuesday's massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut. Credit: AP

The huge blast registered a force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences centre GFZ, with experts saying the blast was around a fifth the size of the nuclear bomb which devastated Hiroshima in 1945.

How the blast happened:

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 at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

Witnesses reported seeing an orange cloud like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.

Videos showed what looked like a fire erupting nearby just before, and local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved.

The fire appeared to trigger a large blast which tore through the city, with a huge mushroom cloud billowing from the epicentre of the blast.

Footage from Beirut the morning after a huge explosion tore through the city

Mr Diab has said that Wednesday would be a day of mourning and indicated that the blast came from a "dangerous" warehouse.

"I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability," he said "Those responsible will pay the price."

He added: "Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced and I will not preempt the investigations."

Donald Trump, however, appeared to contradict the Lebanese leader, saying it could have been "an attack".

He said: "Well, it would seem like it based on the explosion. I met with some of our great generals and they just seemed to feel that it was this was not a some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event.

"This was a, seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would but they seemed to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind. Yes."

Rescue teams are desperately trying to find those who may be trapped under the rubble. Credit: AP

The Queen and Prince Philip sent her condolences to the President of the Republic of Lebanon, saying she and the Duke of Edinburgh are "deeply saddened" by the incident.

She said: "Prince Philip and I were deeply saddened by news of the explosion at the Port in Beirut yesterday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who have been injured or lost their lives, and all those whose homes and livelihoods have been affected."

Boris Johnson has also offered his support to Lebanon and confirmed British nationals had been caught up in the blast.

Aerial footage shows the devastation caused by the blast

Lebanon has been on the brink of economic collapse in recent months, faced with rising inflation and mass protests.

Its hospitals had been dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people treated in the hospital.

Marwan Ramadan, who was about 500 meters from the port and was knocked off his feet by the force of the explosion, said: “It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the (civil) war.”

Smoke is still rising from the scene of the blast by Beirut's port. Credit: AP

The blast destroyed 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.

Balconies had dropped to street level, where shops and restaurants were buried and chairs and tables turned upside down.

Pictures shared on social media on Wednesday showed communities coming together to clear neighbourhoods of debris.

The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

Some of the worst hit neighbourhoods were Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh, where the blast damaged some of the few historic buildings that survived the 1975-1990 civil war. “I have nowhere to go,” a woman said as she wept in what remained of her home in Gemayzeh. “What am I supposed to do?” she screamed into her mobile phone.

There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over one million Syrians amid that country’s years long war.

Beirut is still reeling from the blast which has injured at least 4,000 people in the city. Credit: AP

The port's major grain silo is run by the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade.

Drone footage shot on Wednesday by AP showed that the blast tore open those 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 the 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.

However, he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs. Nehme said Lebanon also would import more wheat.

The death toll in Beirut could still rise, according to officials. Credit: AP

The tiny Mediterranean nation's economic crisis is rooted in decades of systemic corruption and poor governance by the political class that has been in power since the end of the civil war. 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.

“They are so irresponsible that they ended up destroying Beirut,” said Sana, a retired schoolteacher who was preparing to leave her heavily damaged apartment in Mar Mikhael. “I worked for 40 years to make this home and they destroyed it for me in less than a minute.”

“The political class must go. This country is becoming totally hopeless,” she said. “It cannot get worse.”

The size and scale of the Beirut explosion mirrored that of another major disaster involving ammonium nitrate. In 1947, a ship carrying some 2,200 tons of the chemical compound caught fire in Texas City, Texas, and exploded, causing a series of subsequent blasts at nearby oil facilities and a chemical plant. That disaster killed over 575 people and wounded another 4,000.