Hundreds of people are feared dead and at least 3700 have been injured following a massive explosion that rocked the city of Beirut, destroyed buildings kilometers away from the blast site and claimed at least one Australian’s life.
The explosion, which authorities said was sparked by a fire at a warehouse containing 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, sent a shockwave through the Lebanese capital that devastated apartment towers and offices, flipped cars on their roofs and shattered windows and plaster walls.
The Lebanese health ministry said at least 70 people were killed and 3700 people injured, with hospitals overwhelmed by an influx of casualties. The Lebanese Red Cross said hospitals in the city are either so full or so badly damaged that hundreds of patients have had to be turned away or treated on the street or in car parks.
Extraordinary footage shows a fire was raging at a large warehouse in the port district when something triggered a huge blast which sent a pink-coloured mushroom cloud towering above the city.
Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, said the incident had occurred at a depot containing highly explosive ammonium nitrate.
He claimed the material had been seized from a ship and kept in a warehouse at the port, causing disbelief that such a dangerous material could be stored in the densely populated capital.
The dangerous material may have been there for up to six years.
“It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one Australian had been killed in the blast and embassy staff were working to determine how many others had been injured.
“I can confirm there has been one Australian that has been killed,” Morrison said on Wednesday morning.
“Which is terribly devastating and, obviously, we can’t give more details about the specifics at this time but our sympathies to all of the people in Lebanon.
“There is such a large Lebanese Australian community here and they would be worried about loved ones. The details will hopefully be provided soon.”
The Australian embassy in the city was “significantly impacted”, but all of the staff were relatively unharmed except for cuts and scratches, he said. Australia’s embassy in Beirut is reasonably close to the blast site and had most of its windows blown out.
The Prime Minister also asked people worried about relatives to be patient, noting there were 20,000 Australians in Lebanon at any one time.
It is understood that an Australian consular team is travelling to Beirut to assist the local consular team with any Australian casualties.
The force of the blast was so strong that balconies were ripped off apartment towers and cars on roads and highways flipped over. Some people reported being thrown through the air.
People on the island nation of Cyprus – some 250 kilometers away – reported feeling and hearing the explosion.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said the capital was a disaster area, with the damage “enormous”. “This reminds me of what happened in Japan, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said.
“I’ve never seen damage of this size and width, and so catastrophic. This is a national catastrophe. This is a problem for Lebanon, and we don’t know how we’re going to get out of it.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said in a Twitter post it was “unacceptable” that so much ammonium nitrate could have been stored in central Beirut for so long. He also declared a two-week state of emergency.
Some 70 people in Beirut have already been found dead, according to Health Minister Hamad Hassan, but that figure was expected to rise sharply as reports of missing people and serious casualties flooded in.
“It is a disaster in every sense of the word,” he said.
The country’s health ministry said at least 3700 had been injured. The Lebanese Red Cross has issued an urgent call for blood and is bringing ambulances from elsewhere in the country into Beirut to help.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for the victims.
In a televised speech, he said he would soon “reveal facts” about the warehouse where the explosion occurred and suggested there may have been issues with the site for several years.
“The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident. The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.”
President Donald Trump on Tuesday cast the massive explosion as a possible attack and offered US help.
“The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon,” Trump said at a White House briefing.
“When asked later about his depiction of the explosion, Trump said that he had spoken with US military officials who think the blast seemed to be an attack, “a bomb of some kind,” offering no further evidence.
The Jordanian Seismological Observatory estimated the explosion was equivalent to a magnitude 4.5 earthquake.
Local television footage showed severe damage to several houses and shops across the city, including the home of former prime minister Saad Hariri.
Debris filled the ground at the port and other footage showed damaged container trucks and vehicles.
“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” one witness told MM.