What Caused the Beirut Explosion? What We Know

What Caused the Beirut Explosion? What We Know

A pair of explosions, the second much bigger than the first, struck the city of Beirut early Tuesday evening, killing at least 100 people, wounding more than 4,000 and causing widespread damage.

The second blast sent a billowing, reddish plume high above the city’s port and created a shock wave that shattered glass for miles. On Wednesday morning, despite a huge search operation, dozens were still missing in the city, the capital of Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

As the authorities piece together what happened, here is a look at what we know and what we don’t.

The exact cause remains undetermined. The first blast may have been in a fireworks warehouse at the port. Officials say the second, more devastating explosion most likely came from a nearby 2,750-ton stockpile of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical often used as fertilizer, which Prime Minister Hassan Diab said had been stored in a depot for six years.

Investigators will try to determine whether the blasts were accidents or intentionally triggered. Beirut was engulfed in civil war from 1975 to 1990 and has seen bombings and conflict since then, raising fears of a possible return of violence. But Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service, warned against speculating about terrorism before the facts were known.

The blasts caused severe damage to buildings, warehouses and grain silos in the port, in the north of the city. Beyond the industrial waterfront, the explosions tore through popular nightlife and shopping districts and densely populated neighborhoods. More than 750,000 people live in the parts of the city that were damaged.

Even before the explosions, Lebanon had been suffering from a series of crises, including the plunging value of its currency, an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria and the coronavirus pandemic. Since last fall, waves of protesters have taken to the streets to vent anger with Lebanon’s political elite over what they consider the mismanagement of the country.

The second explosion was like an earthquake, witnesses said, and was felt in Cyprus, more than 100 miles away.

Ammonium nitrate explosions have caused a number of disasters. A ship carrying about 2,000 tons of the compound caught fire and exploded in Texas City, Texas, in 1947, killing 581 people. About two tons of the chemical were used in the 1995 terrorist bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

Ceilings collapsed, walls and windows were blown out and debris was found far as two miles from the port. Cars were flipped, and rubble from shattered buildings filled city streets.

Several hospitals, already strained from the coronavirus pandemic, were severely damaged. At the Bikhazi Medical Group hospital in the center of the city, a ceiling fell on some patients, the hospital director said.

The 400-bed St. George Hospital was so extensively damaged that it had to discharge patients and close.

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