A huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least 27 people and injuring over 2,500, according to the country’s health minister.
The blast shook buildings, shattered windows, sent a huge plume of smoke into the sky and left a wide swath of destruction across the city. There were thousands of casualties, with bodies buried under the rubble, officials said.
Lebanon’s health ministry said 27 people had been confirmed dead and over 2,500 were injured. Hours after the explosion, ambulances were still carrying away the wounded and officials said Beirut’s hospitals were full. Army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
Doctors were operating on patients in parking lots as hospitals overflow. Some hospitals have also lost electricity due to Lebanon’s long-running infrastructure problems.
“We’re doing surgery in the hallways,” a Beirut hospital director told al-Mayadeen.
Hospitals overwhelmed after Beirut explosion. In Geitawi, medical staff treating patients in a parking lot. pic.twitter.com/xwC3eBn49r
— Abby Sewell (@sewella) August 4, 2020
Lebanese officials said the blast was caused by a fireworks storehouse at the city’s port catching fire, but some later said that the explosion was caused by chemicals being stored at the dock. Though some suspicions around the blast turned to Israel, which has been involved in a standoff with Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, both sides denied any link.
The official National News Agency confirmed deaths in the blast, without citing a number.
Video taken by residents showed a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes of what appear to be fireworks.
The fire then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave over the city.
“It was like a nuclear explosion,” said Walid Abdo, a 43-year-old school teacher in the neighborhood of Gemayzeh near Beirut.
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said it started as small explosions like firecrackers, then the huge blast erupted and he was thrown off his feet. His clothes were torn.
Miles from the port, balconies were knocked down, windows shattered, streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars. Motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.
Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosion.
“What we saw looked like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It’s absolutely unprecedented in Lebanon’s history,” said Beirut Governor Marwan Aboud, before bursting into tears.
A soldier at the port, who asked not to be named, told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”
An AFP correspondent at the scene said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire shopfronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked.
Injured people were walking in the street, while outside the Clemenceau Medical Center, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted, including children.
“It felt like an earthquake … I felt it was bigger than the explosion in the assassination of [former prime minister] Rafik Hariri in 2005,” said a woman in the city center.
Footage from the massive explosion in Beirut Port, Lebanon pic.twitter.com/bdvzrS05Qf
— Beirut Today (@bey_today) August 4, 2020
Online footage from the Daily Star Lebanon newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior paneling.
BREAKING: Massive explosion in Beirut. Footage from the daily star office now in Lebanon pic.twitter.com/2uBsKP5wCH
— Ghada Alsharif | غادة الشريف (@GhadaaSharif) August 4, 2020
The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks and people whose relatives were working inside the devastated area, while others were screaming to be let through.
A huge blaze was burning at the port, where ambulances were rushing away the wounded, their sirens wailing.
The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometers (150 miles) away.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hasan Diab has declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and President Michel Aoun called for “urgent” defense council talks.
Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centered on a 130 meter (420 foot) grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone.
Director-General of Lebanon Public Security Abbas Ibrahim said that the storage area “contained highly explosive materials confiscated years ago.”
“To discuss fireworks is laughable,” he said. “I can’t predict what the investigation will reveal about the reasons for the explosion.”
Reports indicated that the material could have been sodium nitrate, a compound used both for making bombs and in fertilizer.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that the Jewish state was involved in the explosions.
Figures close to Hezbollah were quoted telling Lebanese media that Israel was not involved.
The incident came as tensions have been high on the Israeli-Lebanese border, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen — a claim denied by the Iran-backed terror group.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hezbollah of hiding arms among Beirut’s civilian population, a claim denied by the organization. Earlier Tuesday he warned Hezbollah against “testing” Israel.
Lebanon is already suffering its worst economic crisis in decades, which has left nearly half of the population in poverty.
Lebanon’s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting against the dollar, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment.
The explosions also come as Lebanon awaits the verdict on Friday in the trial of men accused of murdering Hariri, who was killed in a huge truck bomb attack in 2005.
Four alleged members of Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands over the bombing, which killed 21 other people in addition to Hariri.