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Lebanon launches investigation into ammonium nitrate at port after Beirut explosion

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/5/2020 Nadia Al Faour, USA TODAY
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BEIRUT – Blood stained the asphalt Wednesday as streets teemed with rescuers a day after a massive explosion killed at least 135 people and wounded about 5,000, Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said.

The government declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time, and announced it was launching an investigation into ammonium nitrate stored at the port where the blast originated.

The explosion had a force of at least 500 tons of TNT, according to a U.S. government source who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on the widespread destruction, said the source who has experience with military explosives.

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Much of downtown was littered with damaged cars, mounds of debris and shattered glass, which shopkeepers tried to clean up.

Angelique Sabounjian, 34, was in a coffeehouse called "sip" near the port area when she heard an initial explosion. She left just as the massive, second explosion happened.

"I felt something hit my head; next thing I know, I felt what I could describe as a warm fountain pouring from my head. ... We ran to the Red Cross center nearby. I saw bodies on the floor," she said. She couldn't get help there, so she tried to go to nearby hospitals, but they were demolished. "I don't know how I got the energy and power to walk further with the blood flowing into my mouth and nostrils."

Eventually, she was helped. Doctors told her she swallowed more than a liter of blood.

a car parked on the side of a building: A cataclysmic explosion at a port in Beirut sowed devastation across entire neighborhoods, leaving a landscape of destroyed buildings and brick-covered cars. © STR, AFP via Getty Images A cataclysmic explosion at a port in Beirut sowed devastation across entire neighborhoods, leaving a landscape of destroyed buildings and brick-covered cars.

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Her graphic account echoes others.

"I was sitting on the stairs ... next thing I remember, I was on the ground covered with shattered glass and people screaming," said Shehadeh Khalaf, 67. He was helped at a hospital but said he left because there were so many more people in dire need. "I'm still covered in blood."

Videos: One explosion, seven different angles

The blast was felt as far away as Cyprus, and witnesses in the city described the aftermath as "raining glass."

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"The first blast happened, and the whole building shook. My mother ran to me, screaming 'earthquake!' That's what we initially thought ... then the second blast happened, and all the glass shattered in my house," said Hussein Al Haq, 22, who lives on the outskirts of Beirut. "My mother's still shell-shocked today. If I lose her to the trauma, I'll lose everything."

a lot of smoke: Buildings lie ruined on Aug. 5, 2020, near the city's port, devastated by an explosion a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon. © Getty Images, Getty Images Buildings lie ruined on Aug. 5, 2020, near the city's port, devastated by an explosion a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon.

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These are the survivors. Many others remain missing. Relatives pleaded on social media for help. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” shows photos of missing people, and the names of the missing or wounded were read on the radio Tuesday night. 

Investigation launched into cause of Beirut blast

An official cause for the most powerful explosion to hit the beleaguered city has not been given, but the government ordered port officials put under house arrest Wednesday, pending an investigation into how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.

Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse since it was confiscated from a cargo ship impounded in 2013.

Ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building.

An official letter surfaced online showing that the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly for years that a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger and asked for a way to remove it, according to The Associated Press. The 2017 letter from the customs chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed.

In the letter, the customs chief warned of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are regarding the safety of (port) employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposed the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was ever a response.

Although President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the explosion looked like an attack, there was no apparent evidence of such. Trump said his source was unspecified U.S. military generals. The Pentagon referred USA TODAY's questions about Trump's comments on Beirut to the National Security Council.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official and a member of the U.S. intelligence community told The Associated Press there were no indications the explosion was the result of an attack by either a nation state or proxy forces. Both individuals spoke to the AP under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence briefings publicly.

Investigators searched the wreckage of Beirut’s port Wednesday for clues.

Search and rescue in Beirut

Security forces cordoned off the port area Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defense workers and soldiers worked to locate missing people and clear the rubble. 

Many apartment buildings were damaged, potentially leaving 200,000 people homeless, according to Al-Jazeera. The small nation hosts 1 million Syrians displaced by a civil war, and many Lebanese have not only lost their jobs but their entire savings because of a currency crisis.

Government officials suggested public schools and hotels for those who lost their homes and promised compensation for the victims.

Elie Khoueiry, 38, a father of two, said he’s had enough.

He estimated the blast caused up to $20,000 in damage to his pub, where business was already suffering because of the economic crisis and a coronavirus lockdown.

“If the ruling class wants us to leave, let them give us tickets, and we will go,” he said.

Lebanon on the brink

Lebanon's severe economic crisis ignited mass protests in recent months. 

Decades after Lebanon's 15-year civil war, residents endure frequent power outages and poor public services.

History: Even before explosion, Lebanon teetered toward collapse

The country's health system is also on edge, fighting to contain coronavirus, which could now spread further as the wounded overwhelm hospitals.

St. George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut that had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage.

At Hôtel Dieu, a university hospital in Beirut, oncologist Hampig Kourieh was finishing his shift when the explosion happened. He described "hundreds of people covered in blood arriving on foot, cars and bikes ... the scene was apocalyptic." The smell of blood, Kourieh said, was so strong it was like "iron was covering the ER." Three of his own relatives had to be treated in his hospital Tuesday night.

Food security is also a concern. The half-destroyed silos at the port housed about 85% of the nation's grain. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more. About 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The government said most imports will have to come through Tripoli, Libya.

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Several countries pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, and even Israel offered humanitarian assistance. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a war with the Hezbollah militant group in 2006.

"I lived in Beirut throughout the civil war (1975-1990), but never did I face such an experience," said Nabil Dajani, media studies professor at the American University of Beirut. "I cannot describe the damage I saw."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lebanon launches investigation into ammonium nitrate at port after Beirut explosion

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