Mystery swirls around what caused ammonium nitrate to explode in Beirut

Unconfirmed picture appears to show workers welding door of warehouse filled with chemical; report says authorities warned of dangers for years

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP/Hussein Malla)
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Speculation has mounted around what caused a storehouse of ammonium nitrate to explode in Beirut’s port Tuesday, killing at least 100 people, injuring thousands and laying waste to much of the Lebanese capital, with a report indicating that officials had tried to warn authorities about the danger to no avail.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said 2,750 tons of the agricultural fertilizer ammonium nitrate that had been stored for years in a portside warehouse had blown up, sparking “a disaster in every sense of the word.”

“What happened today will not pass without accountability,” said Diab. “Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”

A picture posted online late Tuesday of unknown provenance appeared to show workers welding a warehouse door next to stacks of 1/2-ton bags of ammonium nitrate.

The door and windows on the warehouse appeared to match pictures and videos of the warehouse where the explosion occurred, shortly after a fire blamed on fireworks sent a large cloud of smoke over Beirut’s downtown.

At least one worker in the picture is wearing a cloth facemask, pointing to it having been taken recently. The authenticity of the picture could not be independently confirmed.

A spark from a welding tool would not be able to cause the nitrate to explode, but it could ignite other materials and raise temperatures high enough to be able to set off a massive explosion.

Ammonium nitrate is used in the manufacture of explosives and is also an ingredient in making fertilizer. It has been blamed for massive industrial accidents in the past, including a 1947 disaster in which a shipment of 2,300 tons of the compound exploded in Texas City, killing hundreds and setting off a 15-foot tidal wave.

It was also a main ingredient in a bomb that destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Last year, reports in Israel claimed that the Mossad had tipped off European intelligence agencies about the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah storing caches of ammonium nitrate for use in bombs in London, Cyprus and elsewhere.

Robert Payne describes the texture of ammonium nitrate as he stands by a pile of the product, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Clifton, Texas. Payne runs RPA Associates, where he keeps ammonium nitrate inside a tall concrete silo once used for grain. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

Lebanon’s General Security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, said the material had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes from Beirut’s shopping and nightlife districts.

According to Lebanese news outlet MTV, the material had been seized in 2014 when it was discovered on a broken-down ship that had been meant to carry bulldozers to Zambia, and was stored in the warehouse at the port.

Both the former and current customs chiefs had asked authorities to move the chemical, due to the danger it posed, but received no response, the outlet said.

An official report earlier this year had pointed to issues with warehouse 12, where the nitrate was being stored, though no actions were apparently taken, according to the report.

Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In the picture, the name Nitroprill HD can be seen on the bags, apparently referring to the name of a Brazilian firm that manufactures explosives for quarry blasting.

Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council has ordered that authorities complete an initial probe into the cause of the blast within five days.

A soldier at the port, where relatives of the missing scrambled for news of their loved ones, told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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