World in view: Beirut devastation

August 28, 2020

From the September-October 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

On August 4, almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in a dock warehouse in Beirut, exploded. Cell phone cameras captured what looked like a small atom bomb blast. At least 180 people were killed, 6,000 injured, and around 300,000 left homeless. A significant part of the city was destroyed.

This was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever measured. It was felt across the region, from Israel to Turkey. In the wake of mass anger and protests, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned. Dozens of officials who had responsibility for port operations have been arrested.


The ammonium nitrate had been confiscated from a damaged Russian cargo ship in 2014. The danger it represented was an open secret, known to President Michel Aoun, as well as by the governments of Iran, Israel, Russia and the U.S. It is thought that the Hezbollah militia group used some of the materiel in its missile program—they have previously been caught with smaller caches of the explosive in the UK and Cyprus, leading to sanctions by European governments.

Warnings were issued to Lebanese officials. In essence, everyone knew the danger but the people of Beirut. Their lives were devastated in the midst of their everyday activities.

As ports are hubs of commerce and war, many of the largest non-nuclear blasts have involved dockside accidents with military materiel. These include the largest ever, the 1917 explosion of a French munitions ship in Halifax, Canada, which killed at least 1,950 people, injured over 9,000, and created a deadly tsunami; and the munitions ship explosion that devastated Port Chicago, Calif., in 1944, which killed 320 and injured 390, mostly Black U.S. Navy personnel.

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