Rescuers searched for survivors Wednesday after a cataclysmic explosion at Beirut port sowed devastation across entire city neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.
The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, some 150 miles (240 kilometres) away.
Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud spoke of “an apocalyptic situation” he said may have made 300,000 people temporarily homeless and would cost the country over $3 billion.
The blast left the Lebanese capital resembling the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left destitute and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.
“A massacre. I saw people screaming, covered in blood, homes broken, glass shattered, roads that look like Hiroshima or like a tsunami hit,” Elie Zakaria, a resident of a neighbourhood close to the port, told AFP.
In an instant, the blast left destruction equivalent to that caused by the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, levelling buildings several hundred metres (yards) away.
A resident of nearby Mar Mikhail, popular for its bars and cafes, said she saw bodies strewn in the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast.
Many people had been watching and filming a fire caused by an earlier explosion when the second, massive blast went off.
The resulting footage, widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shockwave engulfing everything around it.
The mushroom-shaped explosion – which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude quake — and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.
“The Apocalypse” read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past but nothing on this scale.
The already embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances at the port that led to the explosion as “unacceptable” and vowed “those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price”.
Messages of support poured in from around the world, including France, which said it would send three planes carrying rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic, followed by a visit Thursday by President Emmanuel Macron.
The disaster was another blow for an economy already on its knees after Lebanon’s first ever sovereign debt default earlier this year and a crippling devaluation that has plunged half the population into poverty.
The obliteration of its main port signalled more hardship ahead, in a country heavily reliant on imports.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned Wednesday that the destruction of grain silos would cause critical severe flour shortages.
Criticism of the government was already rife on social media, where Lebanese users argued that a disaster of such magnitude could only strike in a state whose institutions are crippled by incompetence and corruption.
Late Tuesday, thousands of families drove out of Beirut to take their families to safety, but many others were left stranded without a roof, unable to go anywhere or unwilling to leave their gutted homes open to looters.
The overnight rescue effort was slowed by lack of electricity, already intermittent at best.
Security forces sealed off a huge area around the blast site, searching for bodies and survivors under the rubble of levelled buildings while rescue boats scoured the waters off the coast.
Hospitals already stretched to the brink by a spike in coronavirus cases in recent days were pushed to new limits by the influx of wounded and were forced to turn many away.
Saint-Georges hospital was badly damaged by the explosion and lost several members of its staff.
“We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,” said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer.
He spoke to AFP from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometre from the seat of the blast.
“We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again,” he said.
“Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,” he added, his voice choked by tears.
The Red Cross said on Wednesday morning that more than 100 deaths had been confirmed. It also reported around 4,000 injured, prompting fears that the death toll could rise significantly.
In a country where smallholders have been unable to withdraw even limited amounts of cash from banks since the start of the year, there was little hope of compensation for those whose property was destroyed.
Crippled by debt and political paralysis, Lebanon, which was due to celebrate its centenary next month, looked ill-equipped to tackle the new crisis.
But one glimmer of hope could be seen in the grassroots solidarity displayed as people launched initiatives on social media to help people locate missing loved ones or offer free accommodation to those made homeless.
Close allies and traditional adversaries of Lebanon paid tribute on Tuesday to the victims of the blasts as condolences and offers of help poured in.
Diab called on “friendly countries” to support a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades and the coronavirus pandemic.
UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed his “deepest condolences … following the horrific explosions in Beirut”, which he said had also injured some United Nations personnel.
US President Donald Trump said “it looks like a terrible attack” and that US generals had told him that the powerful explosions appeared to have been caused by a “bomb of some kind”, without offering evidence.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that “we are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy”.
In the region, Gulf nations were among the first to react, with Qatar promising to send field hospitals to support the medical response.
Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani wished “a speedy recovery for the injured”, while the United Arab Emirates’ Vice President and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, tweeted “our condolences to our beloved people in Lebanon.”
Kuwait said it would also send emergency medical aid.
Egypt expressed “deep concern” at the destruction, and Arab League chief Ahmed Aboulgheit offered condolences, stressing “the importance of finding the truth about the explosions”.
And unusually, neighboring Israel offered humanitarian aid—to a country with which it is still technically at war.
“Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, on behalf of the State of Israel, have offered the Lebanese government—via international intermediaries—medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance”, a statement read.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Amman was ready to provide any help Lebanon needed, while Iran said it was “fully prepared to render assistance in any way necessary”.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the great and resilient people of Lebanon,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad wrote to Lebanese President Michel Aoun that, “on behalf of the Syrian Arab people, we extend our sincere condolences to you and the Lebanese people”.
Outside the region, President Vladimir Putin said “Russia shares the grief of the Lebanese people”, according to a Kremlin statement.
“I ask you to convey words of sympathy and support to the families and friends of the victims, as well as wishes for a speedy recovery to all affected.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the country was “ready to provide assistance according to the needs expressed by the Lebanese authorities”.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the pictures and videos from Beirut “shocking”.
“All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident”, he wrote on Twitter. “The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected”.