For almost seven years more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been left in a warehouse Beirut’s portside, without adequate safety precautions, and no agreement on what to do with the potentially hugely lethal consignment.
The authorities were fully aware of the risk: they had been writing to each other over the years, discussing various options. But nothing was done, the condition of the material in warehouse “hangar 12” continued to deteriorate, and then came the devastating explosion killing more than a hundred people and injuring 4,000 – a blast so powerful that it was felt in Cyprus 120 miles away.
President Michel Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government will release £ 50.5m in emergency funding.
He called the failure to deal with ammonium nitrate “unacceptable” and pledged the “harshest punishment” for those responsible.
Lebanon’s cabinet announced later on Wednesday it would be placing all of Beirut’s port officials who were responsible for storage and security since 2014 under house arrest.
There will also be an investigation into what happened, but the denouement of that “harshest punishment” is likely to take a long time. A verdict is expected this week by a UN-backed court into the killing of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri – 15 years after his death.
The ammonium nitrate, a substance which can be used to make bombs as well as for commercial use such as fertiliser and mining explosives, had arrived in Beirut in September 2013 on board Russian-owned Moldovan-flagged ship the Rhosus, bound for Beira in Mozambique from Batumi in Georgia.
It had docked in Beirut after reporting engine trouble. Lebanese officials prevented the ship from continuing its journey citing safety concerns by port state control officers. Most of the Ukrainian crew were repatriated on the grounds that they were in “imminent danger” due to the material on board. The vessel was eventually abandoned by its owners.
The Lebanese authorities impounded the cargo and put it in the hangar, a large structure which faces the highway at the main entrance to the capital.
There the material stayed for months. Then, leaked official documents show, the then-director of customs, Shafik Merhi, sent a letter to the “urgent matters judge” pointing the need to decide what to do with it. The name of the judge is not known.
Customs officials, according to these records circulating in Lebanon, sent at least five more letters between 5 December 2014 and 27 October 2017 stressing the need for the ammonium nitrate to be moved. The options proposed were exporting the material, selling it to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company, or asking the army to collect it.
One letter sent in 2016 said: “In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working on it or to look into agreeing to sell this amount” to the Lebanese Explosives Company.
The letter recorded that there had been no replies from judges to previous requests. There was no reply to this letter either.
A year later, in October 2017, a new customs director, Badri Daher, sent another letter to a judge asking for a decision in view of “the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there.”
The Reuters news agency reported that the issue of storing the material had come before several committees and judges and “nothing was done”. It also stated that a team that inspected the cargo six months ago warned that it could “blow up all of Beirut” if not removed.
Officials said a fire appears to have started at hangar 9 and spread to hangar 12 detonating the ammonium nitrate. The substance, however, is not an explosive by itself, but an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire and making it rage faster and further.
Pollutants would also add to the flames. “That’s what may have happened, the ammonium nitrate got something added to it accidentally, possibly oil or some other flammable compound. Ammonium nitrate smoke is more yellow, this is rather red. An investigation would ascertain if that is the case and where contamination took place,” said Robert Emerson, a British security analyst.
Ammonium nitrate has been used in explosive devices by military forces in many countries. It has also been used in several terrorist attacks, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by right-wing extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, which destroyed a federal building and killed 168 people.
Donald Trump told reporters at the White House: “It would seem like it was based on the explosion. I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a – some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event... They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind, yes.”
But there has not been any evidence to suggest that the explosion was a deliberate attack – something defence officials told several American media outlets following the president’s comments.The Pentagon refused to comment on Mr Trump’s claims, referring it back to the White House. Defence officials told several American media outlets that there was no evidence that the explosion was a deliberate attack. State Department sources said Lebanese officials had raised concern with US diplomats about the president’s choice of language.
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