Search is on for survivors after blast kills more than 70.
An enormous explosion sent shock waves across Lebanon on Tuesday, killing more than 70 people and injuring more than 4,000. The blast overturned cars and blew out windows miles away, and sent a giant mushroom cloud into the sky over the port of Beirut, the country’s capital.
The blast rocked the city with the ferocity of an earthquake and was heard as far away as Cyprus, more than 100 miles away. Officials said the detonation appeared to have been triggered by a fire at a nearby fireworks factory, but that was not yet confirmed.
Early Wednesday morning, rescue workers dug through the rubble searching for survivors as fires continued to burn, casting an eerie orange glow over the city. Dozens of people were listed as missing.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told the news network Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Officials said it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, which had been stored in a warehouse at the port since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.
“As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service, told the state-run news agency that “highly explosive materials” had been seized by the government years ago and were stored near the blast site. Although the possibility that the explosives had been intentionally set off was being probed, he warned against getting “ahead of the investigation” and speculating that it was a terrorist act.
Videos of the aftermath showed wounded people bleeding amid the dust and rubble, and damage where flying debris had punched holes in walls and furniture. On social media, people reported damage to homes and cars far from the port.
The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was being dispatched to Beirut to help patients.
At least four large hospitals in Beirut were so severely damaged by the explosion that they were unable to admit patients, doctors said. Health care workers were injured and killed in the blast, and a warehouse storing much of the country’s vaccine supply was believed to have been razed.
An official at American University Hospital in Beirut, the country’s most prestigious and largest private hospital, said they were sending noncritical patients to hospitals outside the capital.
At least four nurses died and five doctors were wounded at St. George Hospital, one of the hardest hit, according to Dr. Joseph Haddad, the director of the hospital’s intensive care unit. One nurse scooped up three premature infants from the natal intensive care unit, where glass was blown in and the ceiling partially collapsed, and screamed for help as she held their fragile bodies to her chest.
Dr. Haddad had just finished his rounds and was walking home when the explosion struck. He rushed to check on his family and found his apartment completely destroyed.
He then returned to the hospital to get to work, expecting to be busy stitching up patients injured in the blast and saving lives. But he discovered that the hospital, too, was in rubble.
“The patients were coming down the stairs, the elevators weren’t working. They were walking down from as high as nine floors up,” Dr. Haddad said. “It was the deepest hell of an apocalypse. When I went back to my home an hour later, people were crying in the streets.”
“Every floor of the hospital is damaged. I didn’t see this even during the war. It’s a catastrophe,” said Dr. Peter Noun, the head of St. George Hospital’s Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Department. “The damage is extremely bad. All the rooms are damaged. All the parents and their children were in their rooms. Everything just fell down, the windows destroyed, the ceiling in pieces.”
In addition to taking out some of the capital’s most important hospitals, worries mounted over hundreds of thousands of vaccines and medications that are stored at the Ministry of Public Health-run central medical warehouse at Karantina, located a half a mile from the port where the explosion took place.
The vaccines and medications stored at the warehouse are used to prevent infectious diseases in children under 5 years old and to treat acute sicknesses as well as cancer and autoimmune diseases.
In maps: A two mile radius around the blast was flattened.
Vivian Yee, a correspondent for The New York Times, was at home in Beirut when two explosions convulsed the city. This is her first-person account of what happened.
I was just about to look at a video a friend had sent me on Tuesday afternoon — “the port seems to be burning,” she said — when my whole building shook. Uneasily, naïvely, I ran to the window, then back to my desk to check for news.
Then came a much bigger boom, and the sound itself seemed to splinter. There was shattered glass flying everywhere. Not thinking but moving, I ducked under my desk.
When the world stopped cracking open, I couldn’t see at first because of the blood running down my face. After blinking the blood from my eyes, I tried to take in the sight of my apartment turned into a demolition site. My yellow front door had been hurled on top of my dining table. I couldn’t find my passport, or sturdy shoes.
Later, someone would tell me that Beirutis of her generation, raised during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, instinctively ran into their hallways as soon as they heard the first blast, to escape the glass they knew would break.
I was not so well-trained, but the Lebanese who would help me in the hours to come had the steadiness that comes from having lived through countless previous disasters. Nearly all were strangers, yet they treated me like a friend.
When I got downstairs, someone passing on a motorbike saw my bloody face and told me to hop on.
Everyone on the street seemed to be either bleeding from open gashes or swathed in makeshift bandages — all except one woman in a chic, backless top leading a small dog on a leash. Only an hour before, we had all been walking dogs or checking email or grocery shopping. Only an hour before, there had been no blood.
Reporting was contributed by Ben Hubbard, Vivian Yee, Hwaida Saad, Maria Abi-Habib, John Ismay and Russell Goldman.