At least 25 killed, thousands wounded as explosions rock Beirut
By Ben Hubbard
Two explosions shook Beirut on Tuesday, the second one with enough force to break windows over a radius of miles, damaging and shaking buildings, wounding hundreds of people and strewing debris over a wide area.
Lebanon’s health minister, Hamad Hassan, said that at least 25 people had died and 2,500 suffered injuries, several local news organizations reported. With the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, the figures were likely to go higher.
Just one hospital, Rizk Hospital, said 400 people had gone there to be treated for injuries suffered in the disaster, according to the National News Agency, indicating how widespread the destruction was.
Videos posted online showed a shock wave erupting from the second explosion, knocking people down and enveloping much of the center city in a cloud of dust and smoke. Cars were overturned and streets were blocked by debris, forcing many injured people to walk to hospitals.
Flames continued to rise from the rubble well after the explosions, and a cloud of smoke, tinted pink in the sunset, rose thousands of feet into the sky.
Videos of the aftermath posted online showed wounded people bleeding amid the dust and rubble, and damage where flying debris had punched holes in walls and furniture. On social media, people reported damage to homes and cars far from the port.
The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients. At least one hospital was overwhelmed and was turning wounded people away.
The disaster may have started with a fire at a warehouse, state-run media said.
“Highly explosive materials,” seized by the government years ago, were stored where the explosions occurred, said Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service, according to the National News Agency.
Ibrahim did not say what those materials were, but he warned against getting “ahead of the investigation” and speculating about a terrorist act.
At least one explosion, at about 6 p.m., stemmed from a fire at a warehouse at Beirut’s port, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
There were local reports that the warehouse contained fireworks, and in several videos posted online, colored flashes could be seen in the dark smoke rising from the fire, just before the second explosion.
The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, speaking on television, could not say what had caused the explosion. Breaking into tears, he called it a national catastrophe.
The secretary-general of the Kataeb political party, Nizar Najarian, was killed in the blast, and among those injured was Kamal Hayek, chairman of the state-owned electricity company, who was in critical condition, the news agency reported.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning, the National News Agency reported. The Lebanese presidency said on Twitter that President Michel Aoun had instructed the military to aid in the response and called an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defense Council on Tuesday evening.
Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan announced that his ministry would cover the costs of treating the wounded at hospitals, the National News Agency reported. It said the decision covered both hospitals that have contracts with the ministry as well as those that don’t.
The explosions hit Beirut’s northern, industrial waterfront, little more than a mile away from the Grand Serail palace, where Lebanon’s prime minister is based. Many landmarks, including hospitals, mosques, churches and universities are nearby.
They erupted next to a tall building called Beirut Port Silos, at or near a structure identified on maps as a warehouse. Videos showed only twisted metal and chunks of concrete where that warehouse had been, some of it identifiable as the remains of trucks and shipping containers.
Beirut has suffered through a history of explosions — car bombings, shelling and airstrikes — during a prolonged civil war and fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah.
But if the latest explosions were found to have been caused intentionally, they would shatter a prolonged stretch of relative calm in the Lebanese capital.
Less than a week ago, Israel said it had thwarted a raid by a “terrorist squad” from Hezbollah, the Shiite group that is part of Lebanon’s government, in a disputed border area.
Israeli military officials said there was an exchange of gunfire, which Hezbollah denied.
Israeli military officials say Hezbollah has planted many rockets in southern Lebanon that could threaten northern Israel. But in recent years, Hezbollah has refrained from killing Israelis while Israel has largely avoided killing Hezbollah fighters in Syria, where they are fighting on the Syrian government’s side. Both Israel and Hezbollah have sought to avoid a war that could devastate Lebanon and Israel.
An Israeli intelligence official denied any Israeli involvement in the explosion Tuesday.