Sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling withand an economic crisis: Beirut’s hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to stay on.
The cause of the explosions, which started fires, overturned cars and blew up windows and doors, 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.
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.
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.”
Terrorism has not been ruled out.
Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief Michael Ottey tweeted that the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent Nabih Bulos was injured in the blast.
The White House said President Trump had been briefed on the incident. At a press conference on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump said the explosion “looked like a terrible attack.” “Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families. The United States is ready to help Lebanon. ”
The US State Department issued a statement saying it is “monitoring” the situation.
“We offer our deepest condolences to all those affected and stand ready to offer any assistance possible,” the statement said. “We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any US citizens have been affected. ”
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, over 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 hit by the force of the explosion.
Health Minister Hassan Hamad said the preliminary toll was more than 60 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.
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.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud burst into tears as he visited the site, saying “Beirut is a devastated city”.
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 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.
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.
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.
Chris Livesay contributed to this report.