Beirut reels from huge blast, as death toll climbs to at least 100

LEBANON-BLAST

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese rescue workers dug through rubble on Wednesday looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000.

Officials said the toll was expected to rise after the blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material. The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He called it "unacceptable".

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Massive explosion rocks Beirut
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Massive explosion rocks Beirut
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Black smoke rises from the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, an AFP correspondent said. The blast, which rattled entire buildings and broke glass, was felt in several parts of the city. (Photo by Anwar AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
Wounded people are evacuated after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Injured stand after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
People carry a wounded after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A man reacts at the scene of an explosion at the port in Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP) (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A photo taken from Zaytouna Bay shows a red plume of fire behind a highrise in central Beirut just after a huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by Bassem EL HAGE / AFP) (Photo by BASSEM EL HAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A wounded man is helped by a fireman near the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / People gather at site of an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
A wounded man is checked by a fireman near the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, an AFP correspondent said. The blast, which rattled entire buildings and broke glass, was felt in several parts of the city. (Photo by Anwar AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
A picture shows the scene of a huge explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, an AFP correspondent said. The blast, which rattled entire buildings and broke glass, was felt in several parts of the city. (Photo by Janine HAIDAR / AFP) (Photo by JANINE HAIDAR/AFP via Getty Images)
A wounded woman is carried at the site of an explosion in Ashrafieh, central Beirut, October 19, 2012. At least two people were killed and 15 wounded by a huge bomb that exploded in a street in central Beirut on Friday, witnesses and a security source said. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban (LEBANON -Tags: CIVIL UNREST)
An injured man walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport, in Beirut Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Firefighter douse a blaze at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
BEIRUT, LEBANON - AUGUST 4: A damaged car is seen after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020. A large number of people were reportedly injured in the blasts, while former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri -- who lives near the area of the explosions -- is said to be unharmed, according to initial reports. (Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BEIRUT, LEBANON - AUGUST 4: Damaged buildings are seen after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020. A large number of people were reportedly injured in the blasts, while former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri -- who lives near the area of the explosions -- is said to be unharmed, according to initial reports. (Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BEIRUT, LEBANON - AUGUST 4: Damaged buildings are seen after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020. A large number of people were reportedly injured in the blasts, while former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri -- who lives near the area of the explosions -- is said to be unharmed, according to initial reports. (Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. - Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
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An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. Ordinary Lebanese directed anger at politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that plunged the nation into financial crisis.

"It's like a war zone. I'm speechless," Beirut's mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars. "This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon."

The head of Lebanon's Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. "We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not," he said.

The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were still trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.

Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.

People walked around in shock, with helicopters overhead and teams searching for the missing at sea.

"This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake," said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.

Like others, he blamed politicians. "We already have a financial economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will they compensate for the losses? Who will compenstate for those who lost their loved ones," he said.

WAR MEMORIES

Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut, said: "This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class."

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that ripped the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had been rebuilt. Post-war reconstruction and political corruption mired Lebanon in huge debts.

"With this blast they took us back to the years of war ... Our leaders are in a coma," said Ali Abdulwahed, 46, a manager at Café de l'Etoile, a restaurant next to parliament.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised accountability for the blast at the "dangerous warehouse", adding "those responsible will pay the price".

Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.

The blast was heard as far away as Cyprus, a Mediterranean island about 100 miles (160 km) across the sea from Beirut.

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation's main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people. Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

"The blast blew me metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the U.S. embassy in 1983," said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.

The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which moved to another part of the city after the 1983 attack, warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks.

Footage of the explosion posted on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white mushroom cloud and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from tower blocks as far as 2 km (one mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shockwave.

The explosion came three days before a U.N.-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 that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

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