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Blasts Rock Beirut, Killing Dozens and Wounding Thousands

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The blasts came within seconds of each other.

First, an explosion in Beirut’s port, possibly from a fireworks warehouse, sent a plume of smoke billowing over the capital skyline early Tuesday evening.

Then a much larger explosion from a building nearby shot a chrysanthemum of orange and red smoke into the air followed by a massive shock wave of whitish dust and debris that rose hundreds of feet and spread out for blocks.

The seaside capital rocked like an earthquake. Cars tumbled upside down and bricks rained down from apartment buildings. Glass flew out of windows miles away and roofs collapsed.

The wounded stumbled through debris-choked streets to hospitals, only to be turned away in some cases because the hospitals, already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, were overwhelmed.

By late evening, the Health Ministry said, more than 70 people were dead and at least 3,000 wounded in the worst carnage to hit the city in more than a decade. For many of Lebanon’s 5.2 million people, the images that ricocheted through social media recalled the scenes of urban destruction from the long-troubled country’s decades of war.

ImageEmergency workers evacuating an injured person from the explosion site.
Credit…Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

It was unclear exactly what caused the explosions, but Prime Minister Hassan Diab said an estimated 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, had been stored in a depot at the port for six years.

“As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” Mr. Diab said.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service, told the state-run news agency that “highly explosive materials” had been seized by the government years ago and were stored near the blast site. Although the thought of an attack was in the front of everyone’s mind, he warned against getting “ahead of the investigation” and speculating about a terrorist act.

Credit…Anwar Amro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a televised statement, Mr. Diab hinted that neglect had led to the blast and said the government would hold those responsible to account.

“Facts on this dangerous depot, which has existed since 2014 or the past six years, will be announced,” Mr. Diab said. “Those responsible will pay a price for this catastrophe.”

Mr. Diab said that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, speaking on television, called it “a national catastrophe” and burst into tears.

At a briefing in Washington, President Trump suggested the explosion was the result of an attack. He said he consulted with military generals and that “they seem to think it’s an attack, a bomb of some kind.”

However, a senior U.S. official said, “Everything I’m seeing thus far points to a tragic accident.”

The explosion was the latest in a string of events in recent months that have plunged Lebanon, a sectarian-based democracy with a long history of civil strife, into simultaneous political and economic crises.

Since last fall, waves of protests calling for the ouster of the country’s political class for decades of mismanagement and corruption have shut down cities and towns across the country, and a severe financial crisis has eroded the value of the Lebanese pound by 80 percent, plunging many Lebanese into poverty.

More recently, the number of new coronavirus cases has begun to rise quickly, raising fears that a new government-imposed lockdown could further damage the economy. Many of the country’s hospitals were already on the verge of capacity.

Credit…Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Lebanon’s last major war was in 2006, between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group and political party that remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. In recent years, Israel has launched frequent airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria, but has mostly avoided bombing it in Lebanon to avoid setting off a cycle of retaliation that could lead to a new war.

Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel have flared lately on Lebanon’s southern border, leading many Lebanese to speculate that Israel had targeted materials connected to Hezbollah and hidden in Beirut’s port.

An Israeli official said that Israel “had nothing to do with the incident” on Tuesday.

The blasts emanated from Beirut’s port but were felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles to the west. They ravaged Beirut’s downtown business district, a nearby waterfront full of restaurants and nightclubs, and a number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half.

Nearly all the windows along one popular commercial strip had been blown out and the street was littered with glass, rubble and cars that had slammed into each other after the blast.

Abbas Saleh, a 28-year-old driver, was in his car when he saw a flash and heard a boom, and his windshield shattered.

“You would never think it was an explosion,” he said. “More like missiles coming down on us.”

He ran out of his car and began helping Red Cross workers carry the dead and wounded.

All around, families struggled to get wounded relatives out of their buildings so they could be piled into ambulances or onto the backs of motor scooters. The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was dispatched to Beirut, but so many roads had been rendered impassible that many of the wounded had to walk to the hospital themselves.

Space, medics and supplies were lacking. Hospitals in the hardest-hit areas were heavily damaged, with at least one shutting down altogether and others treating bleeding patients in their parking lots.

St. George Hospital in central Beirut, one of the city’s biggest, was so severely damaged that it had to send patients elsewhere.

“My friends, my friends,” Dr. Joseph Haddad, the hospital’s director of intensive care, said in a phone call. “This is Joseph Haddad calling you from St. George Hospital. There is no St. George Hospital anymore. It’s fallen, it’s on the floor,” Dr. Haddad says, as broken glass is heard crackling underfoot. “It’s all destroyed. All of it. Pray to God, pray to God.”

At Bikhazi Medical Group hospital in the center of Beirut, wounded patients streamed into a damaged hospital.

“The door to the entrance of the hospital is completely shattered,” said Rima Azar, the hospital director and co-owner. “The full ceiling fell on some patients in some rooms. The pressure was horrific. We heard a boom, then everything was shaking. There was a second blow that was super loud. Everything was falling from desks, from shelves.”

The 60-bed hospital treated 500 patients in the hours after the blast, she said.

Another hospital farther out received so many patients that medics lined them on the floor and in hallways. Those with non-life-threatening injuries had them cleaned and stapled shut before being sent on their way.

Credit…Anwar Amro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was unclear how the disaster would affect the country’s tense political situation. Many Lebanese are already fed up with a political class they feel has looted the country for years, leaving it virtually bankrupt and with a collapsing currency. Greater anger would likely follow should it turn out that the blast was yet another example of governmental neglect.

When the explosion struck, meetings were in full swing less than a mile away, at the hillside headquarters of the Kataeb Party, a Christian political group that was once one of Lebanon’s most powerful.

The blast shook the building so badly that party members thought a bomb had gone off inside. The party’s general secretary, Nazar Najarian, was killed by falling debris.

“He had been through explosions, assassination attempts, wars with the Palestinians and Syrians,” said Elias Hankach, a Kataeb member of Parliament. “Our headquarters looks like a bomb went off inside. The inside is a mess, it’s madness.”

He said the party was waiting for clarity on whether the blast was an attack, the kind of crude tool used for decades to shape Lebanon’s political landscape, or just an accident resulting from mismanagement. If it turned out to be accidental, he said, then the disaster is not particularly surprising, the product of “cumulative nonchalance at all levels.”

“Whether you talk about the economy, safety standards, the port, the corruption — none of the country’s issues have had a serious attempt at resolution,” Mr. Hankach said. “We are living in this doomed management of the country.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Nada Rashwan and Mona El-Naggar from Cairo, Maria Abi-Habib from Los Angeles, Alan Yuhas from Philadelphia, Adam Rasgon and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Rick Gladstone from Eastham, Mass., Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.

Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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