The 10 firefighters who got the call a little before 6 p.m. – alerting them to a large fire in the nearby port of Beirut – couldn’t know what to expect.
The brigade of nine men and one woman could not have known of the stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored since 2013 along a busy highway in the heart of a densely populated residential area – a danger that had only increased in size. year after year.
They and most of the people of Beirut just didn’t know about it. They were unaware of the warnings that authorities had repeatedly received and ignored: Ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, used in fertilizers and sometimes to make bombs. The stock was deteriorating; something must be done.
They knew, of course, that they lived in a dysfunctional country, whose government was plagued by the corruption, factionalism and neglect that caused so much pain and heartache. But they couldn’t have known that it would lead to the worst one-day disaster in the tragic history of Lebanon.
Across town, residents who noticed the gray smoke billowing above the facility were drawn to the streets, balconies and windows, watching with curiosity as the blaze spread. Phones were pulled from pockets and pointed at the flames.
Firefighters piled into a fire engine and ambulance and rushed to the scene and to their loss.
Seven years ago, a ship named Rhosus departed from the Georgian port of Batumi on the Black Sea, carrying 2,755.5 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to an explosives company in Mozambique.
He made an unscheduled detour, stopping in Beirut on November 19, 2013. The ship’s Russian owner was in debt and hoped to earn extra money by accepting parts of heavy machinery in Lebanon. This additional cargo proved to be too heavy for the Rhosus and the crew refused to take it on board.
The Rhosus was soon impounded by the Lebanese authorities for non-payment of port dues. He never left the port; he sank there in February 2018, according to official Lebanese documents.
The Port of Beirut is considered one of the most corrupt institutions in a country where almost all public institutions are riddled with corruption. For years, the ruling political factions in Lebanon have divided posts at the port and distributed them to supporters – as they have ministries, state-owned enterprises and other facilities nationwide.
The first known warning came on February 21, 2014, three months after the vessel docked in port.
In a letter to the customs authority’s anti-smuggling department, senior customs official Colonel Joseph Skaff wrote that the material on board was “extremely dangerous and endangered public safety”.
In the years that followed, Skaff’s letter was followed by further correspondence between senior customs and port officials and members of the judiciary and the military.
A forensic expert, commissioned by the courts and the owners of the ammonium nitrate, examined the stockpile shortly after it was transferred to warehouse 12 at the port in October 2014.
It was “in appalling condition,” she said in her February 2015 report. Most of the bags – she estimated at over 1,900 of the 2,750 in total – were torn and their contents fell apart. widespread.
His report was discovered by Riad Kobaissi, an investigative journalist from Al Jadeed TV who has been following corruption at the port and within the customs authorities since 2012.
Customs chief Shafeeq Merhi and his successor, Badri Daher, sent several letters over the following years to urgent matters courts, warning of the danger.
Daher told the AP and other media he never received a response from the court. But Kobaissi, the investigative journalist, found documents showing that the court responded whenever it was not competent and that the Ministry of Public Works had to decide.
The Department of Public Works and Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.
On the afternoon of August 4, according to security officials, three metalworkers who had been working for several days to weld the broken door number 9 of warehouse 12 completed the work and left the facility.
The cause of the initial fire has still not been determined and is at the heart of the ongoing investigation. Some wondered if the welding could have triggered stocks of flammable liquids used in the manufacture of detergents, as well as tons of fireworks that were also kept in warehouse 12. The metal workers, who were hired to repair the gate by port authorities in response to the security report, were held for questioning, security officials said.
There was a first explosion, sending jagged debris into the air.
Twelve seconds later, at 6:08 p.m., ammonium nitrate exploded in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record.
In an instant, an explosion with the force of hundreds of tons of TNT sucked into the air – a video showed a luxury store window exploding outward from the suction, spraying a bride and groom taking their wedding video on the sidewalk outside – then his power unleashed across town.
For miles around, in people’s homes and in shops and hospitals, windows have been smashed, doors knocked down, ceilings or walls blown up on those inside.
The devastation was unimaginable, even for a city like Beirut, marked by civil war and past conflicts.
“I thought it was the end of Beirut or the end of the world or the war had started,” said Alaa Saad, who was diving with his friends, about 1.5 miles off the coast of Beirut.
More than 6,000 people were injured and at least 180 were killed, including the 10 first responders.
It would take days of research before colleagues found all of their bodies in the rubble.