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What is Behind the Explosion at Beirut?

A large explosion at Beirut’s port ripped apart the Lebanese city on Tuesday, but what caused it?

The devastation of Beirut is hard to hear and comprehend. At least 150 people have died, and some estimate a lot more will be found, in an explosion at a Beirut port.

It appears to have been an unknown blast in the early stages of reporting, but now reports suggest it is the result of storing both ammonium nitrate and fireworks within a shed at the port.

Watch with caution

What is Ammonium Nitrate and How Can it be Ignited?

My understanding of ammonium nitrate is that it is mainly used as a fertiliser, and had been travelling to the African continent, when the boat it was on, was deemed ‘unseaworthy’.

It was then stored in a hanger located at the port, along with fireworks. Ammonium nitrate is an explosive as well as a fertiliser, and it provides oxygen to any fire. However, it is not easy to set off. It needs a large intervention for this to happen.

It appears that there may have been a small fire that broke out near the hanger, and this may have subsequently led to the ignition of the ammonium nitrate.

A former port worker who has seen many of his colleagues die in the blast, details some of the other factors that may have led to the tragedy.

“There were 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks inside warehouse 12”.

“They were on the left-hand side when you entered the door. I used to complain about this. It wasn’t safe. There was also humidity there”.

(Yusuf Shehadi, The Guardian)

To my mind, the ammonium nitrate seems to have had a variety of factors, that led to its explosion. In Lebanon at present, it is the height of summer. The hanger would have been hot, humid and contained. Past experience of disaster tells us the significance of heat. One similar situation was in China, where summer heat led to chemicals abandoned at a warehouse spontaneously igniting, and later setting off the nearby ammonium nitrate. Subsequently, over 100 people died.

The Events Before the Explosion

In addition, Yusuf reports electrical work being carried out on the gate outside the hanger. This may have led to the initial fire that firefighters were called to attend. Reports were of smoke coming from the hanger. Consequently, the presence of smoke is highly likely to have led to the explosion. All fire fighters died at the scene.

State Security at the Scene

The fire fighters present were not alone, it is reported state security also attended. This was in response to the smoke billowing from warehouse 12 (the ammonium nitrate and firework container). Clearly, officials knew the implications of the smoke early on and reacted immediately. However, I speculate it was too late and a sequence of events: containment, heat, fire and ammonium nitrate, led to the death of all who responded.

The sad thing about this is that it could have been prevented. Storing both fireworks and ammonium nitrate in a warehouse, is asking for a disaster to happen. Both explosives had been in the warehouse for years, but for some reason; they decided to go off then.

Is it Dangerous to Store Fireworks?

I find it alarming that the storage of fireworks could be dangerous, but I am informed that this is not generally the case. Fireworks need excess heat way above the temperature of an inner container. The inside of a car can reach up to 60 celsius, but this would not be hot enough to ignite the fireworks. Specifically, the fireworks need an ignition or heat hundreds of celsius above 60 degrees.

Was the warehouse deliberately lit? 

It is possible as it would explain the initial fire that set the ammonium nitrate off. As it would have been difficult for the fire to have lit otherwise. Although, electrical work outside the warehouse may have led to the initial fire, as to ‘how’ that would have happened, is not evident.

What is evident, is the lack of responsibility of both the military and the government, who were both aware of the dangerous explosive. Not one person took sole responsibility for the removal of the substance which has led to so many people dying, despite protests by those who worked so closely to it. Workers at the port repeatedly asked for the chemical to be removed, but it remained.

A whole city has been annihilated, people’s homes were situated around the port but now remain as rubble. Yousef Shehadi has now only memories of the colleagues he worked with, and a lucky escape, of which could have been his fate.

The Lebanese people are angry at their government who they deem corrupt and wish to be removed from power. And I would say, what is the use of a government if they do not take care of the matters they govern?