Disasters & Accidents

Beirut: Pain and outrage amid the devastation

By Ana María Guzelian

Beirut, Aug 5 (efe-epa).- Buildings in ruins and blood stains on pavement covered with shattered glass pointed the way on Wednesday to the massive hole in the ground where the Port of Beirut stood before the cataclysmic explosion that killed 135 people and left Lebanon in the grip of grief and indignation.

Nabin Emboz cleaned up what was left of his small bookstore near the port, one of the many establishments that succumbed to the blast wave generated by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting in a warehouse.

“All I wish from this system is that at least they make the person who did this pay,” Emboz told Efe.

“I guess I will have to take a one-year obligatory vacation now that my shop is destroyed,” he added with more than a touch of sarcasm.

Emboz, however, is better off than the capital residents who were hurt in Tuesday’s blast, a number that exceeds 5,000, according to a source in the health ministry.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan said that at least 113 people were killed, but the same ministry source who provided the figure of 5,000 injured told Efe the provisional tally of the dead and the missing was 135.

Military patrols kept people away from the port, denying access even to accredited journalists.

“We still don’t know the reason for the second explosion and we don’t want any erroneous information in the media,” a soldier who declined to give his name told Efe.

The consignment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common component in fertilizer and in explosives used for mining, had been sitting in a warehouse in the port since June 2014.

The vessel carrying the cargo from Georgia to Mozambique docked in Beirut in 2013 due to mechanical problems. Lebanese authorities deemed the M/V Rhosus not-seaworthy and the owner ultimately abandoned both the ship and the cargo.

While officials are scrambling to address the immediate crisis, Lebanese leaders have vowed to find out how the highly volatile cargo was left in storage without precautions.

“The impact of the trauma will not prevent us from affirming to the parents of the martyrs and injured first, then to all the Lebanese, that we are determined to move on with the investigations and expose the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment,” President Michel Aoun said Wednesday.

Even beyond the casualties and destruction, Tuesday’s disaster is likely to see Lebanon’s political class come under additional pressure from a population that took to the streets last September to demand an end to corruption and the sectarian spoils system amid the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

“The country is in a national crisis. I hope everyone will stop the debates and deal with the disaster that has struck the country,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said during a Cabinet meeting.

Investigating the explosion is “a priority” and the results must come quickly, he said.

“Around 200,000 to 250,000 people have been left homeless and we are working to provide food, water and housing,” Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, said Wednesday.

The government on Wednesday declared “a state of emergency in Beirut for a period of two weeks that is renewable, and the highest military authority immediately assumes responsibility for maintaining security,” Information Minister Manal Abdul-Samad told a press conference.

All of those involved in the storage of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate will be placed under house arrest, she said.

But the promises of accountability were of little consolation to Beirutis.

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