The explosion at the port in Lebanon’s capital killed more than 70 people. It was heard and felt in Cyprus, 180 miles away.
BEIRUT — A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital, and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
The blast struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences center GFZ, and it was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles across the Mediterranean.
The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis. For hours afterward, ambulances rushing in from around Lebanon carried away the wounded. Hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and for generators to keep their lights on.
For blocks around the port, where the explosion took place, bloodied residents staggered through streets lined with overturned cars and littered with rubble from shattered buildings. Windows and doors were blown out miles away. Army helicopters helped battle fires.
The cause of the blast was not immediately known, but initial reports suggested a fire had detonated a warehouse at the port.
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 a strange orange-colored cloud like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates.
The explosion came amid ongoing tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah military group on Lebanon’s southern border. Many residents reported hearing planes overhead just before the blast, fueling rumors of an attack, though Israeli military overflights are common. An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the blast. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the news media. Israeli officials usually do not comment on “foreign reports.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended his “deepest condolences” to the people of Beirut and said the United States was closely monitoring the situation. “Our team in Beirut has reported to me the extensive damage to a city and a people that I hold dear, an additional challenge in a time of already deep crisis,” Pompeo said in a written statement.
President Donald Trump said at an evening news conference on the coronavirus pandemic that U.S. military generals had told him they thought the explosion was likely a bomb.
The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings, and bombardment by Israel.
“It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the [civil] war,” said Marwan Ramadan, who was about 500 yards from the port and was knocked off his feet by the force of the explosion.
Health Minister Hassan Hamad said the preliminary toll was more than 70 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. Emergency teams streamed in from across Lebanon to help, and the injured had to be taken to hospitals outside the capital. Hamad added that offers of aid were pouring in.
Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, broke into tears as he toured the site, exclaiming, “Beirut is a devastated city.”