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Beirut blast: Lebanon putting some port officials on house arrest after explosion kills at least 100, injures thousands

BEIRUT — Beirut residents are confronting a scene of utter devastation, a day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across Lebanon’s capital. The blast killed at least 100 people, wounded thousands and left entire city blocks flooded with glass and rubble.

Lebanon putting some Beirut port officials on house arrest

The Lebanese government says it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.

The move comes amid speculation that negligence was to blame for the explosion that killed more than 100 people.

It was announced following a Cabinet meeting Wednesday during which the government declared a two-week “state of emergency,” effectively giving the military full powers during this time.

Likely cause of Beirut blast

Fireworks and ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, experts and videos of the blast suggest.

The scale of the damage – from the epicenter of the explosion at the port of Beirut to the windows blown out kilometers (miles) away – resembles other blasts involving the chemical compound commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer.

But the compound itself typically doesn’t detonate on its own and requires another ignition source. That likely came from a fire that engulfed what initially appeared to be fireworks that were stored at the port.

Online videos of the disaster’s initial moments show sparks and lights inside the smoke rising from the blaze, just prior to the massive blast. That likely indicates that fireworks were involved, said Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works closely with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives.

“Before the big explosion, you can see in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” Hayoun told The Associated Press. “This is very specific behavior of fireworks, the visuals, the sounds and the transformation from a slow burn to a massive explosion.”

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, offered a similar assessment.

“It looks like an accident,” Lewis told the AP. “First, there was a fire preceding the explosion, which is not an attack. And some of the videos show munitions what I could call popcorning, exploding like ‘pop, pop, pop, pop.'”

He added that “it’s very common to see fires detonate explosives.”

“If you have a fire raging next to something explosive, and you don’t put it out, it blows up,” he said.

VIDEO: Wide vantage of Beirut explosion aftermath, shockwave

The white cloud that accompanied the massive blast appeared to be a condensation cloud, often common in massive explosions in humid conditions that can follow the shock waves of an explosion, Lewis said.

Orange clouds also followed the blast, likely from toxic nitrogen dioxide gas that’s released after an explosion involving nitrates.

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A shattered Beirut emerges from the rubble stunned, wounded

Residents of Beirut -stunned, sleepless and stoic – emerged Wednesday from the aftermath of a catastrophic explosion searching for missing relatives, bandaging their wounds and retrieving what’s left of their homes.

The sound of ambulance sirens and the shoveling of glass and rubble could be heard across the Lebanese capital. Almost nothing was left untouched by the blast, which obliterated the port and sent a tide of destruction through the city center.

Elegant stone buildings, fashionable shopping districts and long stretches of the famed seaside promenade were reduced to rubble within seconds of Tuesday’s blast.

PHOTOS: Aftermath of explosions in Beirut, Lebanon

The explosion appeared to have been caused by a blaze at a fireworks warehouse that ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored at the port since 2013. But many blamed the catastrophe on the country’s long-entrenched political class, with some saying it marked the final straw after decades of corruption and neglect.

At least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 wounded. The number of dead was expected to rise as rescuers sifted through the rubble.

“Beirut is gone” said Mohammed Saad, an out-of-town driver making his way through the mangled streets.

“We don’t deserve this,” said Riwa Baltagi, a 23-year-old who was helping friends retrieve valuables from their demolished homes.

Some of the worst damage was in the leafy neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh, where the blast damaged some of the few historic buildings that survived the 1975-1990 civil war. Balconies had dropped to street level, where shops and restaurants were buried and chairs and tables turned upside down.

“I have nowhere to go,” a woman said as she wept in what remained of her home in Gemayzeh. “What am I supposed to do?” she screamed into her mobile phone.

Furniture and cushions were strewn along the streets amid the endless shards of glass. The damage could be seen across town in the popular shopping district of Hamra, and at the international airport south of the city. The blast could be felt as far off as Cyprus, a Mediterranean island some 200 kilometers (120 miles) away.

Few lamented the damage at the headquarters of the state electricity company, a symbol of the corruption and poor governance that has bedeviled Lebanon since the end of the war. Many blamed the latest catastrophe on the country’s long-entrenched political class.

“They are so irresponsible that they ended up destroying Beirut,” said Sana, a retired schoolteacher who was preparing to leave her heavily damaged apartment in Mar Mikhael. “I worked for 40 years to make this home and they destroyed it for me in less than a minute.”

“The political class must go. This country is becoming totally hopeless,” she said. “It cannot get worse.”

Lebanon was already mired in a severe economic crisis, with soaring unemployment and a plunging exchange rate that had erased many people’s life savings. The blast demolished a major wheat silo at the port, raising concerns that the small country, which relies on imports, may soon struggle to feed itself.

There were some glimmers of hope amid the tragedy: Volunteers could be seen ferrying the wounded to hospitals on trucks and motorcycles, while others provided first aid.

A widely circulated video showed a crowd erupting in applause as a civil defense worker was rescued from under the rubble. In another, showing the moment of the blast, a nanny grabs a little girl and pulls her to safety as the windows of the apartment shatter inward.

Copyright © 2020 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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