Beirut, Lebanon – At least 63 people have been killed and nearly 3,000 wounded in a powerful explosion that ripped through Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, leaving much of it a wrangled mess.
The massive explosion on Tuesday at Beirut’s port sent shockwaves across the city, causing widespread damage to buildings and shattering windows even on the outskirts of the capital.
The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear. Mohammed Fahmi, Lebanon’s interior minister, said it was apparently caused by ammonium nitrate that was stored in a warehouse at the port.
Prime Minsiter Hassan Diab promised that “what happened will not go without accountability”.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan called for international aid to Lebanon, and a number of nations in the West and the Gulf have said they were willing to provide assistance.
The explosion left the port a wasteland; cars hanging from the mangled beams of warehouses, bent containers spread across roadways and a large ship listing onto the quayside. A health worker on the scene told Al Jazeera that he had seen at least 10 people dead near the explosion site, many left disfigured.
Helicopters circling the port area were trying to extinguish a large fire. Sirens filled the air.
Hospitals in the city were overwhelmed with wounded and turning those with non-serious injuries away.
At Hotel-Dieu hospital, itself left damaged by the explosion, dozens of people trying to enter were told to go elsewhere. “It’s a catastrophe, a catastrophe,” a man said in disbelief.
Inside the crowded lobby, a family got the news that their relative was dead. A young woman bent over in anguish, spread her arms open to an infant child and said “Youssef, dad is in heaven.” An old man fell to his knees and smacked the ground, over and over.
Pharmacies in the city were asked to welcome the wounded in order to take pressure off hospitals.
On TV screens, doctors asked for people to come donate blood. Newscasters read out the names of missing people – some were port employees, others were firefighters who had first responded to the fire at the port, before the massive explosion ripped the capital apart.
“Joseph Ruukoz,” the newscaster read. “Marwan Chartouni. Charbel Hitti. Mohammad Mustafa Dakdouki. An Ethiopian woman.”
Earlier at the port, a man in the all-white uniform of a boat crew, stained with blood, wandered near an Italian ship docked near the explosion site, the Orient Queen. Its interior was blown out, it was sloped sideways onto the quayside.
“The ship is totally destroyed – the cabins, the lounge, everything,” Vincenco Orlandini, the 69-year-old Italian crew member, told Al Jazeera.
“I heard the blast and I flew to the opposite of the lobby, then I landed on the carpet and I’m lucky, I think that saved me.”
Video of the explosion taken by Al Jazeera shows a large column of smoke billowing from an area of the port that houses large warehouses before a large orange explosion is seen and huge dome-shaped blast wave shoots into the air.
Glass storefronts and windowpanes across the city were shattered in the explosion, while videos and pictures shared on social media showed doors ripped from their hinges and ceilings filled with gaping holes.
A civil defence worker who has worked in the sector for 20 years was in disbelief at the scale of the damage.
“I’ve seen the assassinations and the explosions but this is something else. There is something wrong here,” the worker said.
The explosion in Beirut port comes as the country faces an unprecedented financial crisis and a surging coronavirus outbreak.
Located in the heart of capital, the port is a vital piece of infrastructure used to get scarce goods in the country. There explosion damaged grains silos in the port which are a strategic reserve of wheat for the crisis-hit nation.