BEIRUT: Lebanese rescue workers dug through the mangled wreckage of buildings looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000.
Officials said the toll was expected to rise after Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material. The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut and sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the island of Cyprus, about 100 miles away.
President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, calling it “unacceptable”.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. “It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told a news agency while inspecting damage. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.”
The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. “We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said. Kettani said the Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed.
The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during Tuesday afternoon rush hour.
Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.
Offers of international support poured in as Gulf Arab states sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital. The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations also offered help. The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialised search and rescue teams.
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports.
Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Lebanon’s main grain silo at the port was destroyed, leaving the nation with less than a month’s wheat reserves.