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Beirut explosion: What are the possible causes for the blast?

The vibrations of the blast, which was initially misconstrued by some as detonation of some nuclear device, were even felt around 240 km away in Cyprus.

Written by Sushant Kulkarni , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune |
Updated: August 14, 2020 9:16:03 am
beirut explosion, lebanon beirut port explosion, beirut blast, beirut explosion explained, Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

At least 100 people were killed and nearly 4,000 injured in a massive explosion at Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The explosion, according to the Lebanon government, was of over 2700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored for six years in a warehouse in the port. Multiple reports suggest that a huge tremor-causing explosion was preceded by a fire, possibly of firecrackers.

What is known about the blast till now?

A giant explosion at a warehouse took place around 6 pm local time at a warehouse at Beirut port. The videos of the blast, which are now all over the web, show a fire next to a building that is followed by a huge explosion. Based on the visuals and sounds during the initial fire, experts have said that it could possibly be of firecrackers.

The vibrations of the blast, which was initially misconstrued by some as detonation of some nuclear device, were even felt around 240 km away in Cyprus, according to some reports.

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Within hours, reports came up quoting Lebanon government officials that the explosion was that of over 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, seized six years ago.

Lebanon Prime Minister Hassan Diab details of the storage will be announced soon, and that those responsible will not be spared.

While it is too early to conclude on the exact sequence of events leading to the explosion, various theories of it being an attack or an act of sabotage will have to be verified as part of the investigation.

US President Donald Trump in his briefings to the press on Tuesday called the incident to be an ‘attack’, something which has since been denied by US officials, as reported by the US media. The blast casualties have overwhelmed the health system of the country which has been in a serious financial crisis and because medical facilities have themselves been hit by the explosion.

Incident comes at one of the worst times for the country

The Western Asian country in the recent past has been crippled by serious economic woes at the centre of which has been a currency crisis. This has caused large-scale closure of businesses and soaring prices of basic commodities resulting in social unrest. The explosion has occured at the time when a UN tribunal is set give its verdict in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanase Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed in a truck bomb attack. The country has been bracing for the aftermath of the verdict of the case, which has at its core the age-old Shia-Sunni rift.

Lebanon, which has been seeing alternating phases of peace and unrest off late, has the past of a civil war from 70s through 90s marked by sectarian violence, internal and external conflicts and massacres.

What are possible causes of the blast?

Primary observations by the experts first point serious lack of maintaining safety norms at the explosive storage. There are also questions about how ammonium nitrate and another source of fire — possibly firecrackers in this case — were present so close to each other.

Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate are regarded as a major fire hazard, with multiple reported cases across the world. Big stockpiles of ammonium nitrate can explode in two possible ways. One is by some type of detonation or initiation because the storage comes in contact with explosive mixture or an outside source of energy. Second, the blast can result due to a fire which starts into the ammonium nitrate storage because of the heat generated due to the oxidation process at large scale. There are several documented examples of deadly ammonium nitrate fire and explosion incidents in the past, some with large numbers of fatalities like in China in 2015 and in Texas in 1947.

In the April 1947 Texas incident was caused by fire on a cargo ship while it was being loaded and had a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate already loaded. The explosion subsequently led to fire on another nearby ship which also had ammonium nitrate and sulphur. The death toll in the incident was over 580.

In the 2015 Tianjin incident, a fire had started at a hazardous goods warehouse acting as a trigger for an explosion of ammonium nitrate stored nearby. 173 persons, including many rescue agency personnel, were killed.

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Experts say that the world over, the main obstacles in regulating ammonium nitrate is its widespread use in industry and agriculture. While a legislative framework exists, repeated examples of misuse and mishaps show that a lot more needs to be done.

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