Frantic Lebanese set up social media pages to search for missing loved ones, many of whom are believed to be stuck under rubble after a mammoth port blast split through Lebanon's capital, leaving 300,000 homeless.

A woman injured in Tuesday’s blast and her husband outside their damaged grocery in Beirut, Lebanon on August 5, 2020.
A woman injured in Tuesday’s blast and her husband outside their damaged grocery in Beirut, Lebanon on August 5, 2020. (Aziz Taher / Reuters)

Residents of Beirut have woken up to a scene of utter devastation a day after a massive explosion at the port sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 100 people and wounding thousands.

Smoke was still rising from the port, where huge mounds of grain gushed from hollowed-out silos. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.

The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were still trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during rush hour.

READ MORE: Rescuers search for survivors as Beirut reels from catastrophic blast

Search for loved ones

Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. 

An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night. 

At least 300,000 people have been left homeless after the blast, Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said on Wednesday.

Many residents moved in with friends or relatives after their apartments were damaged and treated their own injuries because hospitals were overwhelmed.

'The apocalypse'

The resulting footage, which was widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shockwave engulfing everything around it.

The mushroom-shaped explosion, which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude quake, and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.

"The Apocalypse" read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past, but none quite this big.

Another paper, al Akhbar, had a photo of a destroyed port with the words: “The Great Collapse”.

It was the most powerful explosion ever seen in the city, which was on the front lines of the 1975-1990 civil war and has endured conflicts with neighbouring Israel and periodic bombings and terror attacks.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertiliser, stored in a portside warehouse had blown up, sparking "a disaster in every sense of the word".

Ammonium nitrate is an odourless crystalline substance that has been the cause of numerous industrial explosions over the decades.

When combined with fuel oils, it creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups such as the Taliban for improvised explosive devices.

Desperate search for loved ones

Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris.

People walked around in shock, with helicopters overhead and teams searching for the missing at sea.

A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. 

He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.

In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defence workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. 

At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.

People run for cover following an explosion in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 4, 2020.
People run for cover following an explosion in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 4, 2020. (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters)

Unemployment, food security and a fiscal crisis

The blast destroyed numerous apartment buildings, leaving 300,000 people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. 

There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over 1 million Syrians amid that country’s yearslong war.

Drone footage shot on Wednesday showed that the blast tore open the port's major grain silo, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. 

Remaining grain supplies will last less than a month, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said.

"We already have a financial-economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will they compensate for the losses? Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones," said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.

A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020.
A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. (Reuters)

The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated, including replacements for the grain destroyed in the blast.

Some 80 percent of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the US Agriculture Department.

Estimates suggest some 85 percent of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency earlier quoted Nehme as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. 

The tiny Mediterranean nation's economic crisis is rooted in decades of systemic corruption and poor governance by the political class that has been in power since the end of the civil war.

Lebanese have held mass protests calling for sweeping political change since last autumn but few of their demands have been met as the economic situation has steadily worsened.

Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut, said: "This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies