As death toll rises after deadly blast, a search for answers and survivors

Wreckage near the blast site in Beirut on Tuesday.

By The New York Times

Rescue workers still struggling to treat thousands of people wounded in an enormous explosion that rocked Beirut turned their attention on Wednesday morning to the desperate search for survivors.

The blast, so powerful it could be felt more than 150 miles away in Cyprus, leveled whole sections of the city near the port of Beirut, leaving nothing but twisted metal and debris for blocks in Beirut’s downtown business district.

The waterfront neighborhood normally full of restaurants and nightclubs was essentially flattened. A number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half were also ravaged.

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. The buildings that remained standing in the blast area looked as if they had been skinned, leaving only hulking skeletons.

The death toll rose to over 100 and with an untold number still missing and officials expected that figure to rise. More than 4,000 people were injured, overwhelming the city’s hospitals.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told the news network Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

With electricity out in most of the city, emergency workers were limited in what they could do until the sun rose.

Emergency workers joined residents scattered across the wreckage digging through the rubble even fires still smoldered around them.

“There are many people missing until now. 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.

“We need everything to hospitalize the victims, and there is an acute shortage of everything,” Hassan told local news stations Wednesday morning.

Officials said it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, which had been stored in a warehouse at the port since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

Already struggling with an economic collapse, a political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, many in Lebanon demanded answers to serious questions: why such a dangerous cache of material was allowed to be stored at the port, who knew it was there and why nothing was done to better secure the site?

“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,” Prime Minister Hassan 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 possibility that the explosives had been intentionally set off was being probed, he warned against getting “ahead of the investigation” and speculating that it was a terrorist act.

The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients and engaged in search-and-rescue operations.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes. But amid the devastation, stories of heroism.

The Lebanese Red Cross raced to set up temporary shelters with food, hygiene kits and basic needs to house up to 1,000 families who lost their homes, although that will only be enough to help a small fraction of the estimated 300,000 people who were displaced by the blast.

But even as scores of people remained missing and families engaged in desperate searches in the 2-square-mile blast zone around the port that was ground zero for the explosion, stories of heroism also began to emerge.

Cheers erupted as rescue workers pulled a young man from the rubble, his clothes caked in dirt and dust and clinging to his body, and carried him on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.

At St. George’s hospital, where at least four nurses died, a doctor described how one nurse scooped up three premature infants from the neonatal intensive care unit, where the ceiling had partially collapsed and glass had shattered, to carry them to safety. A photo journalist, Bilal Jawich, captured a photograph of the nurse, who has not been publicly identified.

“16 years of photojournalism and a lot of wars. I can say I have never seen what I saw today,” he wrote in a post accompanying the photo that described how the nurse rushed to the phone to call for help with the tiny babies clutched in her arms.

Many on social media applauded the quick thinking of a woman seen in a video vacuuming on a balcony when the first blast hit. Without hesitation, she threw herself forward to shield a young girl across the room, swept her into her arms and ran for safety.

The city’s governor, Marwan Abboud, told reporters that hundreds of thousands had been displaced by the explosion.

Across the battered city, residents, hotels, schools and others offered shelter to those in need, coordinating the efforts on social media.

“Please DM me if you or anyone you know needs shelter,” wrote Joelle Eid on Twitter. “My family home was not affected and is open. We can arrange for transport as well. #ourhomesareopen

Hundreds lined up to donate blood overnight at a blood bank in the northern city of Tripoli, and urban search and rescue units from across the region and further afield — including from France, Poland, Greece and the Netherlands — were sent to Beirut to assist in the hunt for the missing.

The science behind the blast: Why fertilizer packs a punch.

When an explosive compound detonates, it releases gas that rapidly expands. This “shock wave” is essentially a wall of dense air that can cause damage, and it dissipates as it spreads further out. A mass of exploding ammonium nitrate produces a blast that moves at many times the speed of sound, and this wave can reflect and bounce as it moves — especially in an urban area like the Beirut waterfront — destroying some buildings while leaving others relatively undamaged

The explosive power of ammonium nitrate can be difficult to quantify in absolute terms, given its age and the conditions in which it has been stored. However, it could be as high as about 40% of the power of TNT.

At 40% the power of TNT, the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate could produce 1 psi of overpressure — defined as the pressure caused by a shock wave over and above normal atmospheric pressure — as far as 6,600 feet away. The same explosion would produce 27 psi at a range of 793 feet away, which would destroy most buildings, and kill people either through direct trauma or being struck by debris.

Accidental detonation of ammonium nitrate has caused a number of deadly industrial accidents, including the worst in U.S. history: In 1947, a ship carrying an estimated 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas, starting a chain reaction of blasts and blazes that killed 581 people.

The chemical has also been the primary ingredient in bombs used in several terrorist attacks, including the destruction of the federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people. That bomb contained about two tons of ammonium nitrate.

Even as hospitals were destroyed and staffers killed, doctors and nurses raced to help.

At least four large hospitals in Beirut were so severely damaged by the explosion that they were unable to admit patients, doctors said. Health care workers were injured and killed in the blast, and a warehouse storing much of the country’s vaccine supply was believed to have been razed.

An official at American University Hospital in Beirut, the country’s most prestigious and largest private hospital, said they were sending noncritical patients to hospitals outside the capital.

At least four nurses died and five doctors were wounded at St. George Hospital, one of the hardest hit, according to Dr. Joseph Haddad, the director of the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Haddad had just finished his rounds and was walking home when the explosion struck. He rushed to check on his family and found his apartment completely destroyed.

He then returned to the hospital to get to work, expecting to be busy stitching up patients injured in the blast and saving lives. But he discovered that the hospital, too, was in rubble.

“The patients were coming down the stairs, the elevators weren’t working. They were walking down from as high as nine floors up,” Haddad said. “It was the deepest hell of an apocalypse. When I went back to my home an hour later, people were crying in the streets.”

“Every floor of the hospital is damaged. I didn’t see this even during the war. It’s a catastrophe,” said Dr. Peter Noun, the head of St. George Hospital’s Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Department. “The damage is extremely bad. All the rooms are damaged. All the parents and their children were in their rooms. Everything just fell down, the windows destroyed, the ceiling in pieces.”

In addition to taking out some of the capital’s most important hospitals, worries mounted over hundreds of thousands of vaccines and medications that are stored at the warehouse run by the Ministry of Public Health at Karantina, half a mile from the port where the explosion took place.

The vaccines and medications stored at the warehouse are used to prevent infectious diseases in children under 5 years old and to treat acute sicknesses as well as cancer and autoimmune diseases.

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