Two massive explosions rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 60 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
Hours later, ambulances still carried away the wounded as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port. A soldier at the port, who asked not to be named, told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”
The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis: Beirut hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.
The cause of the blast, which sparked fires, overturned cars and blew out windows and doors, was not immediately known.
Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said it might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. Local television channel LBC said the material was sodium nitrate.
Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange-coloured cloud over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.
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 media. Israeli officials usually do not comment on “foreign reports.”
The White House said President Trump had been briefed on the incident and the U.S. State Department released a statement saying it was “closely following” the situation.
“We extend our deepest condolences to all those affected, and stand ready to offer all possible assistance,” the statement said. “We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any U.S. citizens were affected.”
The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and bombardment by Israel. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles across the Mediterranean.