At least 100 people have been killed and 4,000 are injured after a large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut as images showed a giant column of smoke rising over the city.
The most powerful explosion to hit Beirut in years shook the ground, leaving some residents thinking an earthquake had struck. The blast was so large it was felt over a hundred miles away in Cyprus.
The blast occurred in the city’s port area, where there were warehouses housing explosives.
President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He said it was “unacceptable”.
Hours after the blast, ambulances still carried away the wounded as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
George Kettani, the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe. There are victims and casualties everywhere,” he said.
Footage of the blast shared by residents on social media showed a huge plume of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast. Those filming what initially appeared to be a big blaze were thrown backwards by the shock of the explosion.
Another view of the explosions in Beirut pic.twitter.com/efT5VlpMkj— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) August 4, 2020
I am told this was a warehouse storing fireworks that blew up.— Rym Momtaz ريم ممتاز (@RymMomtaz) August 4, 2020
There were literally tons of fireworks there, so the explosion was gigantic and the impact radius felt across the city (glass in my own family's homes in different parts of Beirut blew up). https://t.co/L6hfhOhBZT
“I have never in my life seen disaster this big, this grand, this catastrophic,” said Beiruit’s governor, Marwan Abboud, before he broke down crying.
“This is a national catastrophe. This a disaster for Lebanon. We don’t know how we’re going to recover from this. We need to stay strong and we need to be courageous, but this, our people have been through so much.”
One witness told the Reuters news agency: “I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street.”
Another Reuters witness said she saw heavy grey smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames of fire and black smoke: “All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos.”
Lebanon’s health care system is already being outstretched by chronic underfunding and a surge in coronavirus cases. Doctors and nurses had already warned of a shortage of medical supplies, including anaesthesia drugs and sutures, the AP reported last week. The American University of Beirut Medical Center, one of the most prestigious hospitals in the Middle East, laid off hundreds of workers in recent weeks.
Lebanon is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in decades, with its currency losing more than 80% of its value and unemployment soaring, pushing millions of people into poverty.
The crisis began last year, before the coronavirus pandemic hit: Lebanon has long relied on reserves of foreign currency, particularly the US dollar, for essential imports, but political leaders and banks failed to maintain that stock or to develop the economy to produce exports and earn money. The virus-related global economic slowdown further hurt Lebanon’s economy and slashed inflows of money from Lebanese working abroad who suddenly faced reduced circumstances.
Last autumn, tens of thousands of protesters staged weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations against Lebanon’s ruling elite over their failure to deliver basic services and to prevent the financial crunch.
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about one mile from the port.
Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday’s blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance. Shi’ite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.
Western countries including the US, Britain and France said they were ready to assist.
Images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than 6 million.
It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and which is already grappling with economic meltdown under one of the world’s biggest debt burdens.
Residents said glass was broken in neighbourhoods on Beirut’s Mediterranean coast and inland suburbs several miles away. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island around 150 miles across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.