Massive explosion in Beirut kills more than 70 and injures thousands

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BEIRUT – A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings in the capital and sending a giant mushroom high into the sky. More than 70 people have been killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. The explosion struck with the force of a magnitude 3.5 earthquake, according to the German geoscience center GFZ, and it was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.

The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis. For hours afterwards, ambulances rushing from all over Lebanon took away the wounded. Hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, calling for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.

During the blocks around the harbor, where the blast took place, bloodied residents staggered through streets lined with overturned cars and strewn with rubble from destroyed buildings. Windows and doors have been blown out for miles (miles). Army helicopters helped fight the fires raging in the port of Beirut.

The cause of the explosion was not immediately known, but early reports suggested that a fire had detonated a warehouse at the port.

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. Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange cloud like the one that appears when nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.

The explosion came amid continuing tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah military group on the southern border of Lebanon. Many residents said they heard planes overhead just before the explosion, fueling rumors of the attack, although Israeli military overflights are common. 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.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his “deepest condolences” to the people of Beirut and said the United States was monitoring the situation closely. “Our team in Beirut has brought to my attention the tremendous damage done to a city and a people dear to me, an additional challenge in a time of already deep crisis,” Pompeo said in a written statement.

The explosion was staggering even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and Israeli bombings.

“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.

Health Minister Hassan Hamad said the preliminary toll was more than 70 dead and more than 3,000 injured. Emergency teams flocked from all over Lebanon to help, and the injured had to be transported to hospitals outside the capital. Hamad added that hospitals were barely faring and offers of aid were pouring in from Arab states and friends of Lebanon.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud broke down in tears as he visited the site, exclaiming: “Beirut is a devastated city.” Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised that “those responsible will pay”.

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 appeared to be fireworks. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire then appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering a larger explosion, sending out a mushroom cloud and generating a shock wave.

One of Israel’s top bomb experts, Boaz Hayoun, said the fireworks could have been a trigger for the larger explosion. “Before the big explosion,… in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” said Hayoun, owner of the Tamar group, who works in close collaboration with the Israeli government. on explosives safety and certification issues. “It’s a very specific behavior of fireworks. ”

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.

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.

Outside a hospital, Omar Kinno sat on the sidewalk, fighting back tears. Kinno, a Syrian, said one of his sisters was killed when the explosion rocked their apartment near the port and another sister’s neck was broken. His injured mother and father were taken to hospital but he didn’t know which one, and he was making calls to try to find them.

“I have no idea what happened to my parents. I am totally lost, ”he said.

Confusion reigned throughout the city as people walked out of damaged homes or tried to locate their families. 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 grappling with the collapse of the 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.

Several hospitals in Beirut were damaged by the explosion. Roum Hospital appealed for people to bring him spare generators to maintain his electricity as he evacuated patients due to severe damage.

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.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, said one of its ships in the port was damaged and a number of its peacekeepers were injured, some seriously.

It was reminiscent of the massive explosions during the civil war in Lebanon and took place just three days before a UN-backed tribunal handed down its verdict in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in a bomb attack on a truck over 15 years ago. This explosion, along with a ton of explosives, was felt for miles (miles), just like Tuesday’s explosion.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet that his country was sending aid. Israel has offered emergency aid through international intermediaries, its foreign ministry said in a statement. Iran, the boss of Hezbollah, has also said it is ready to help. “Stay strong, Lebanon,” its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet.

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Associated Press reporters Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.

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