The cause of the explosion was not immediately known.
Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanese general security, said it could have been caused by highly explosive materials that were confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. Local TV station LBC said the material was sodium nitrate.
An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the explosion. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. Israeli officials generally do not comment on “foreign reports.”
The explosion was staggering even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and Israeli bombings. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.
“It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like it since the days of the (civil) war, ”said Marwan Ramadan, who was about 500 meters from the port and was knocked down by the force of the explosion.
Emergency teams have flocked from across Lebanon to help a health system already strained by the coronavirus. Red Cross official Georges Kettaneh said the injured were being taken to hospitals outside the capital as facilities were at full capacity. He estimated the number of victims in the hundreds, but said he did not have exact figures on the dead or injured.
Some of the injured were lying on the ground in the harbor, Associated Press staff said at the scene. A civil defense official said there were still bodies inside the port, many under the debris.
Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange cloud over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of carbon dioxide nitrogen dioxide often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.
Initially, a video taken by residents showed a fire raging in the harbor, sending out a giant column of smoke, lit by lightning bolts of what appears to be fireworks. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved.
The fire then appeared to grab a nearby building, triggering a larger explosion, sending out a mushroom cloud and shock wave.
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said it started with small explosions like firecrackers. Then, he said, he was knocked down by the huge explosion. His clothes were torn.
Miles from the port, the facades of buildings were torn to pieces, balconies were knocked down and windows smashed. The streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars. Motorcyclists chose their path in traffic, carrying the injured.
A woman covered in blood from the waist up walked down a destroyed street while talking furiously on her phone. On another street, a bloody-faced woman looked distraught, staggering through traffic with two friends by her side.
“This country is cursed,” muttered a passing young man.
The explosion came at a time when the Lebanese economy is facing collapse, hit by both a financial crisis and coronavirus restrictions. Many lost their jobs, while the value of their savings evaporated as the currency dipped in value against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.
It also happened against a backdrop of growing tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah militant group along Lebanon’s southern border.
The explosion was reminiscent of the massive explosions during the civil war in Lebanon and came just three days before a UN-backed tribunal handed down its verdict in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in a bombing. bomb against a truck more than 15 years ago. This explosion, along with a ton of explosives, was felt miles away, as was Tuesday’s explosion.
Outside St. George’s University Hospital in Beirut’s Achrafieh district, people with various injuries arrived by ambulance, car and on foot. The explosion caused extensive damage to the interior of the building and cut power to the hospital. Dozens of wounded were treated on the spot in the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.
“It is a disaster that we have on our hands,” said a doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the press.
Associated Press editor Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.