Lead-up to colossal blast began 7 years ago

Countdown to Beirut catastrophe: A Russian businessman, a decrepit ship, a spark

The chronology of Lebanon’s disaster runs through the ship MV Rhosus, its allegedly dodgy owner, a volatile cargo and the authorities’ blatant disregard for danger

A picture taken from the coastal road on the northern outskirts of Beirut shows smoke billowing following an explosion in the heart Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020 (JOSEPH EID / AFP)
A picture taken from the coastal road on the northern outskirts of Beirut shows smoke billowing following an explosion in the heart Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020 (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

In October 2013 the MV Rhosus, a ship sailing under the Moldovan flag, headed from Georgia to Mozambique carrying a huge supply of ammonium nitrate, a volatile chemical commonly used in fertilizers. Then, unexpectedly, the Rhosus diverted to Beirut for what was meant to be a short stop.

Instead, the ship was held by port authorities over irregularities, in what evolved into a months-long legal saga between authorities and the vessel’s Russian owner, and set off a chain of events that now appears to have led to Tuesday’s deadly explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital.

Though the Lebanese government is still investigating the exact causes of the blast and has given no official ruling, multiple media reports have pieced together how the events leading up to the disaster may have unfolded, highlighting alleged neglect on all levels and across the timeline of events.

Lebanese authorities have said 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that ignited in a warehouse at Beirut’s port were behind the enormous explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured about 5,000, while displacing some 300,000 whose homes were rendered unlivable by the blast and the ensuing shock wave.

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Sources in the government indicated early on that the explosive material had been stored at the port for years after being seized from a ship. Reports have now tracked the nitrate back to the Rhosus and its ill-fated detour to Beirut nearly seven years ago.

Abandoned ship

The Rhosus was owned by Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin as it made its journey from Georgia’s Black Sea port of Batumi to Mozambique — carrying the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.

According to The New York Times, the Rhosus was a rickety ship, perhaps as much as 40 years old, and poorly maintained. Grechushkin is reported to have failed to have paid crews’ wages in the past.

There were conflicting reports as to why the Rhosus changed direction mid-journey. Some reports have cited technical difficulties, while others said Grechushkin ran out of funding and instructed the mostly-Ukrainian crew to head to Lebanon to pick up additional cargo in order to finance the voyage.

But upon docking in Beirut the Rhosus ran into further trouble. The Seafarers’ Union of Russia told CNN this was due to the ship being deemed unseaworthy, in addition to complaints against the owner by the crew and a failure to pay port fees. The Times reported that the ship had a hole in its hull that required water to be continuously pumped out.

The ship’s captain at the time, Boris Prokoshev, said Grechushkin then abandoned the ship and the crew, failing to provide them with any assistance, financial or otherwise. He has called the stay at the port a form of “incarceration.”

“I wrote to Putin every day… Eventually we had to sell the fuel and use the money to hire a lawyer because there was not help, the owner did not even provide us with food or water,” Prokoshev told Echo Moscow radio Wednesday.

A maritime website reporting on events at the time said the crew was sitting on “a floating bomb.” At one point Prokoshev told Russian journalists: “The owner has abandoned the ship. The cargo is ammonium nitrate. It is an explosive substance. And we’ve been abandoned. We’ve been living for 10 months on a powder keg.”

Eventually the sailors were allowed to leave and return to their homes, while the ship and its cargo remained at Beirut’s port. Reports indicate the cargo of ammonium nitrate was unloaded sometime in 2014 and placed in the port’s Warehouse 12, where it languished without appropriate safety precautions until Tuesday’s fire and subsequent explosion.

Undated photos have now emerged claiming to show the sacks of nitrate stacked together inside the warehouse.

The Rhosus, meanwhile, remained forgotten at the port and is believed to have sunk some two or three years ago. Radio Free Europe reported that crew members claim Grechushkin still owes them tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. Grechushkin is reported to currently live in Limassol, Cyprus, and has so far not commented on the events of recent days.

Repeated warnings

In the wake of the explosion, Lebanese authorities have placed current and former port officials under house arrest.

But customs officials at the port have said that far from being complacent, they repeatedly warned government officials of the great danger posed by the thousands of tons of explosive materials held at the port.

Documents show customs officials in recent years made up to six requests to judicial officials asking that the ammonium nitrate be moved, citing port safety.

One 2016 letter seen by Al Jazeera said: “In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount to the Lebanese Explosives Company.”

In another purported letter circulating online, Lebanon’s customs director since 2017, Badri Daher, warned of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of [port] employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it.

“We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen,” Daher told Lebanon’s broadcaster LBCI Wednesday. “We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why.”

The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, told the Times: “We were told the cargo would be sold in an auction. But the auction never happened and the judiciary never acted.”

Citing a port source, Reuters reported that as recently as six months ago, a team of inspectors had warned that the stowed nitrates could “blow up all of Beirut,” but no action was taken.

Enter the welders

Though potentially highly destructive, ammonium nitrate does not typically detonate easily and requires another ignition source.

According to LBCI, that may have happened Tuesday when welders came to close off a gap in Warehouse 9. That warehouse is believed to have stored fireworks. A spark from a welder’s torch is suspected of setting off fireworks, with the ensuing fire spreading from Warehouse 9 to Warehouse 12 and igniting the nitrates, leading to the most destructive single explosion in the country’s history.

An explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)

Agencies contributed to this report.

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