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Beirut blast timeline: what we know, and what we don’t

After the devastation and and loss of lives and property in the capital of Lebanon. We all are praying for everyone effected…

Beirut is still counting the cost in lives and property from a massive explosion at its port on Tuesday that sent a shockwave blasting across the city. Anger is growing in Lebanon at what appears to be an industrial accident that authorities foresaw and warned about for years before. The Lebanese government is currently investigating, but many in the country and internationally are calling for an independent probe.

Exactly what happened at the port in the early evening of 4 August is still unclear, but several facts have come to light in the days since the blast. The trail begins nearly seven years ago, with a rickety ship leaving the eastern European state of Georgia, carrying a deadly load.

An undated photo the the Rhosus.
 An undated photo of the Rhosus. Photograph: Tony Vrailas/Marinetraffic.com/EPA

23 September 2013

The Rhosus, a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged merchant vessel departs from Batumi, Georgia en route to Mozambique carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The bill of lading shows the chemicals were purchased by Fabrica De Explosivos, a Mozambican industrial explosives company.

The company that manages the Mozambican port of Beira says it was never notified of any such cargo arriving, according to Portuguese media. According to an interview with the ship’s former captain, the vessel made stops in Turkey and Pireaus, Greece.

October 2013

The Rhosus makes a stop at in Beirut. Some sources suggest it did so due to a technical fault, but the former captain has claimed it wanted to take on extra cargo to make the voyage more profitable. There, the crew went on strike due to unpaid wages, he says. Lebanese authorities refused to let the ship leave, claiming since the explosion they believed it was unseaworthy.

But the ship’s former captain has said it was stopped due to unpaid port fees. The International Transport Workers Federation, which sought back wages and repatriation for the crew, confirmed that the ship was being held in part because it owed the port $100,000 in unpaid bills. Some of the crew were not allowed to leave for another 11 months, claiming they were “incarcerated” on the vessel.

27 June 2014

The then-director of Lebanese customs, Shafik Merhi, sends a letter to an “urgent matters judge” warning of the danger of the ammonium nitrate and asking for a ruling on what should be done with it, Al Jazeera reports.

Another letter is sent in December of that year and in May 2015 again asking for a resolution, according to the current Lebanese customs director, Badri Daher.

July 2014

Shipping website FleetMon says the Rhosus has by this point been “abandoned” by its owner.

October 2015

The 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate aboard the Rhosus has by this point been placed in a warehouse and the ship is detained at the port, according to lawyers for the crew, who have since been released from the vessel.

It is not known how much longer the empty vessel was kept in Beirut, or where it went afterwards. The ship’s former captain says it sank “two or three years ago”.

20 May 2016 to 27 October 2017

Lebanese customs officials send three more letters to the judiciary. The latest, sent 27 October 2017, urges the judge to make a quick decision in light of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there”.

They claim the letters are ignored and nothing is done.

December 2019

A state security report is submitted to the judiciary, the presidency and the intelligence and customs directorates warning of “the real danger arising from these materials”, according to the Lebanese news outlet Al-Akhbar. It makes several recommendations including that a hole in warehouse 12, where the highly explosive material is being kept, be sealed to prevent theft.

Early 2020

An anonymous source close to a port employee told Reuters a team had inspected the ammonium nitrate six months before the explosion and warned that if it was not moved it would “blow up all of Beirut”.

24 July 2020

Lebanon’s public works minister Michel Najjar learns of the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port from a report he receive’s from the country’s supreme defence council, he told Al Jazeera

4 August 2020, 5.40pm

A fire is said to be alight at the Beirut port. Its source and exactly where it started is not clear. Lebanese media has quoted the port’s general manager Hossan Koraytem claiming a team of welders was sealing the gap in warehouse 12 and finished their work by noon. Unnamed security sources have claimed the welding crew finished before 5pm.

Reuters on Wednesday quoted sources claiming the fire started at nearby warehouse 9 and spread to warehouse 12 – without mention of any welding.

Others have observed the sputtering red explosions that preceded the large blast in some videos suggest fireworks might have been the source of the initial fire.

At least 10 firefighters are dispatched to the port to put out the fire, which by 5.54pm is sending plumes of thick smoke above Beirut.

4 August 2020, 6.08pm

 Beirut explosion: scores dead and thousands hurt as blast rips through city – video report

A massive blast shakes Beirut. One of the first markers of the event on social media is a tweet from Adam Baron, a resident of a neighbourhood close to the port. His tweet appears at 6.09pm. He says he sent it “while I was still cowering, so within a minute” of the explosion.

The port is reduced to a deep crater surrounded by a smouldering wasteland, while buildings close to the epicentre of the explosion are severely damaged.

Damage to Beirut port.
 Damage to Beirut port. Photograph: Planet Labs Inc

Windows are broken and walls caved in up to 5km away, and the blast is heard across Lebanon and more than 200km away in Cyrus.

Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, estimates up to $15bn damage has been done to the city and that 300,000 homes are damaged, some left uninhabitable.

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by Michael Safi and Andrew Roth

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