Lebanon is in mourning and surveying the damage to its capital Beirut after a massive explosion ripped through the city’s port and surrounding areas on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring 4,000 with many still feared to be trapped under rubble.
In a country already reeling from an economic crisis, the full scale of the calamity became apparent as the city woke on Wednesday morning, with rescue teams searching through the debris of ruined neighbourhoods for the missing, and hospitals buckling under the weight of thousands of casualties.
A Lebanese Red Cross official said on Wednesday morning the death toll had reached at least 100, with smoke still rising from the port and downtown streets littered with upturned cars and the ruins of shattered buildings.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettaneh told a local broadcaster. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Soldiers were at the site clearing rubble and helicopters were passing over dropping water to put out the smouldering remains.
Hospitals were still overrun with wounded people and others searching for loved ones, with pages springing up online listing pictures of the missing and begging for information of their whereabouts.
Beirut governor Marwan Abboud told a local radio station that more than 100 people remain missing, including several firefighters. “Beirut has never gone through what it went through yesterday,” he said.
A two-week state of emergency has been recommended by the president, after authorities blamed a huge store of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate for the explosion that sent a shockwave across the city, shattering windows, collapsing roofs and rendering homes uninhabitable.
The blast, at 6:08pm local time on Tuesday, was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, 120 miles away.
It left cars with blown out windows strewn on highways and a city in shock. Footage posted on social media showed whole neighbourhoods in ruins.
“There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hasan told Reuters.
President Michel Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government would release 100 billion lira (£50.5m; $66m) of emergency funds.
In the immediate aftermath, Beirutis stood among the dust and the debris, the shards of glass and the burning buildings, and they cried for help.
At the port on Tuesday evening, a woman in her twenties stood at the gates, screaming at security forces, asking about the fate of her brother, an employee inside.
“His name is Jad, his eyes are green,” she pleaded, but security forces were resolute in their refusal to let her enter. Nearby another woman almost fainted while also asking about her brother who also worked at the port.
A soldier stationed there said: “it’s a catastrophe inside”. “There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”
Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years. He scheduled an urgent cabinet meeting for Wednesday, and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.
Video footage appeared to show two blasts, with some witness accounts suggesting the initial conflagration sounded “like fireworks”. The first plume of smoke was then suddenly consumed by a massive fireball and white cloud, sending a shockwave scudding across the city.
The blasts destroyed wheat in the port’s granaries, prompting fears of a looming food crisis across a nation already suffering bread shortages and paralysed by the twin crises of coronavirus and an economic meltdown.
Lebanon imports about 90% of its wheat – used for making the country’s staple flatbread – with the vast majority coming through the destroyed port. The port granaries held about 85% of the country’s cereals.
But the most immediate fear was for the casualties, and a health system already straining because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the aftermath of the blast, thousands of people sought treatment in nearby hospitals, which were struggling to cope, or had been incapacitated by the blast.