The government declares two-week state of emergency in Beirut after the massive blast in the port area of the capital kills at least 135 people with some 5,000 wounded and tens still missing.

A general view shows the damaged grain silos of Beirut's harbour and its surroundings on August 5, 2020.
A general view shows the damaged grain silos of Beirut's harbour and its surroundings on August 5, 2020. (AFP)

Lebanon's president has promised a transparent investigation into a catastrophic blast in the capital Beirut as initial findings point to inaction and neglect around the storage of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material.

President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday that an investigation into the explosion, which has killed at least 135 people and wounded over 5,000, would reveal the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible. He vowed the results would be revealed transparently.

Aoun on Wednesday toured the site where the blast ripped through Beirut's port and surrounding areas on Tuesday.

The explosion, apparently caused by ignited ammonium nitrate, was the most powerful ever to hit Beirut, leaving the port district a wreck of mangled masonry and disabling the main entry port for imports to feed a nation of more than 6 million people. 

Thousands homeless

More than 300,000 people have been left homeless with the damage of the blast estimated to cost over $3 billion.

Smoke still rose from the port, where a towering building of silos was half destroyed, spilling out grain. Hangars around it were completely toppled. 

The blast knocked out a crater some 200 metres across that filled with seawater, it was as if the sea had taken a bite out of the port, swallowing buildings with it.

Much of downtown was littered with damaged vehicles and debris that had rained down from the shattered facades of buildings.

Collective losses may reach $15 billion

Beirut's governor told Al Hadath TV that collective losses after may reach $10 billion to $15 billion, with the governor explaining the number includes both direct and indirect losses related to business.

The governor also told Al Hadath TV that amounts of available wheat are currently limited and he thinks a crisis might take place without international interference.

Two-week state of emergency

The Lebanese government has declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut, effectively giving the military full powers during this time after the blast.

The government announced the measure during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

It said it was 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.

Initial findings point to negligence

Initial investigations indicate years of inaction and negligence over the storage of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion, an official source familiar with the findings said.

The prime minister and presidency have said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.

"It is negligence," the official source told Reuters, adding that the issue on storing the material safely had come before several committees and judges and "nothing was done" to order the material be removed or disposed of,

The source said a fire had started at port warehouse 9 on Tuesday and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.

Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the material six months ago warned it could "blow up all of Beirut" if not removed.

Beirut port's general manager said that the facility had warehoused highly-explosive material six years ago based on a court order, local broadcaster OTV reported.

The broadcaster quoted Hassan Koraytem as telling it that the customs department and state security had asked authorities for the material to be exported or removed, but that "nothing happened".

Two documents seen by Reuters showed Lebanese Customs had asked the judiciary in 2016 and 2017 to request that the "concerned maritime agency" re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate, which had been removed from cargo vessel Rhosus and deposited in warehouse 12, to ensure port safety.

One document cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015.

READ MORE: Beirut explosion: What is ammonium nitrate and why is it so explosive?

Rescuers search for survivors

Rescuers were searching for survivors in Beirut after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods.

The blast was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 240 kilometres to the northwest.

The scale of the destruction was such that the Lebanese capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.

"It's like a war zone. I'm speechless," Beirut's mayor, Jamal Itani.

"This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon."

READ MORE: Death toll rises after deadly explosion in Lebanon's Beirut

People missing

"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 said.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 kilometres from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help in clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.

Igniting ammonium nitrate 

Witnesses reported seeing an orange cloud-like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates. 

Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertiliser but can also be highly explosive

Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.

Other experts suggested fireworks combined with ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited the massive.

The chemical 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 centre of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles," Hayoun said.

The US embassy in Beirut warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.

International aid pours in

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation after a deadly explosion at a port warehouse in capital, Beirut.

In a short televised speech on Wednesday, Diab said "we are witnessing a real catastrophe".

He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the massive explosion at Beirut’s port will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.

Aoun declared three days of mourning and announced he would release $66 million of emergency funds amid a massive economic crisis. 

International aid in the form of emergency workers and medical personnel was heading to Lebanon as pledges from countries continued to roll in.

Qatar has begun flying field hospitals and medical aid to Beirut, to ease pressure on Lebanon's strained medical system after the previous day's devastating explosions.

Crews at Qatar's al Udeid airbase loaded collapsible beds, generators and burn sheets onto an Emiri Air Force C17 cargo plane, which subsequently took off for Lebanon.

Officers estimated at least 3,175 kilogrammes of aid would be flown on the inaugural flight, with two hospital units equipped with up to 550 beds due in Beirut by day's end.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said that he spoke over the phone with his Lebanese counterpart Hamad Hassan, and said that Turkey will send medical and humanitarian aid to Lebanon under the coordination of country's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD).

Koca also underlined that a Turkish team of 20 specialist physicians will travel to Lebanon today for the treatment of the injured.

Separately, Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said that Turkey "took action to heal the wounds of Lebanon" upon the instructions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

"Turkey has extended a helping hand to Lebanon, which lost most of the wheat storages in the explosion in Beirut. 

TIKA [Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency] will deliver about 400 tons of wheat to the Lebanese authorities," Ersoy said.

TIKA officials are expected to deliver wheat to Lebanese officials in a few days.

Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is also helping in the search for survivors, digging through debris to look for people and recover bodies. The group has also mobilised a kitchen at a Palestinian refugee camp to deliver food to those in need, said Mustafa Ozbek, an Istanbul-based IHH official.

Russia's emergency officials said the country will send five planeloads of aid to Beirut, including rescuers, medical workers, a makeshift hospital and a lab for coronavirus testing to Lebanon.

France plans to send two planes with dozens of emergency workers, a mobile medical unit and 15 tonnes of aid. 

French peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon, a former French protectorate, have been helping since the explosions, the president's office said.

Jordan vowed to dispatch a military field hospital including all necessary personnel, according to the Royal Court.

Egypt has opened a field hospital in Beirut to receive the wounded.

Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says Lebanon has accepted an offer to send a team of 37 rescuers with sniffer dogs to Beirut. 

READ MORE: Here's how the world is reacting to the horror of Beirut's port explosion

People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, August 4, 2020.
People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, August 4, 2020. (AP)

Extensive destruction

"We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else," said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometre from the seat of the blast.

"We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn't think it could get worse but now I don't know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave," he said, his voice choked by tears.

The blast revived memories of a 1975 and 1990 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.

Dazed, weeping and injured people walked through streets searching for relatives.

“The blast blew me off metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the US embassy in 1983," said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.

READ MORE: Are Hezbollah and Israel really ready for war?

A man inspects the damage following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon, August 5, 2020.
A man inspects the damage following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Reuters)

Trial of 2005 bombing

The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shia group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 kilometres from the port.

Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday's blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance. 

Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus.

At a White House briefing, US President Donald Trump indicated that the blast was a possible attack, but two US officials said initial information contradicted Trump's view.

READ MORE: Lebanese PM calls for caution after border tensions with Israel

Source: TRTWorld and agencies