Bags of fireworks were stored alongside highly explosive ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, a former worker has claimed.
Yusuf Shehadi said dozens of fireworks were stored in the same hangar as thousands of tonnes of the powerful chemical compound in the port of Beirut, Lebanon.
Meanwhile, people were out hurling stones at riot police outside Lebanese parliament ahead of a major protest planned in downtown Martyrs’ Square on Saturday.
Critics call for an end to the country’s political system after Tuesday’s blast killed 137 people and wounded more than 5,000.
Mr Shehadi, who emigrated to Canada in March this year, told The Guardian he was instructed by the military to store 2,750 tonnes of the chemical in Warehouse 12.
Yusuf Shehadi said dozens of fireworks were stored in the same hangar as thousands of tonnes of the powerful chemical compound ammonium nitrate (pictured) in Beirut, Lebanon
Footage taken by a woman living near the warehouse showed thousands of sparks shooting into the air as plumes of black smoke rose above the port
On top of the dangerous chemicals, fireworks were confiscated by customs in 2009-10 and sent to be stored in the same hangar.
‘There were 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks inside warehouse 12,’ he said, adding that he had personally seem them being delivered on a forklift.
‘They were on the left-hand side when you entered the door. I used to complain about this. There was also humidity there. This was a disaster waiting to happen.’
Mr Shehadi said customs complained every week about the dangers of storing the chemicals so close to peoples’ homes – but the army refused to move the ammonium nitrate.
He revealed his former colleagues told him workers were trying to fix a gate outside warehouse 12 with an electrical tool just 30 minutes before the blast.
Mr Shehadi said he thought it was this work that caused the tragedy.
Protests are expected tomorrow as anger builds in the city against officials who critics say did nothing to prevent the disaster.
Anti-government protesters hurl stones at Lebanese riot police during a protest against the Lebanese politicians who have ruled the country for decades, outside of the Lebanese Parliament in downtown Beirut on Friday evening
People were out hurling stones at riot police outside Lebanese parliament ahead of a major protest planned in downtown Martyrs’ Square on Saturday
Damaged cars are seen at the site of Tuesday’s blast, at Beirut’s port area, Lebanon, August 7
A satellite image made available by MAXAR Technologies shows capsized Orient Queen ship after the major explosion
Lebanese Red Cross members walk amongst the rubble at the site of Tuesday’s blast
Burned-out cars. Two massive explosions in the port area of Beirut on August 4 resulted in a shockwave devastating multiple nearby neighborhoods, with more than 100 citizens killed
Hospital capacity was reduced by 500 beds, shipping containers filled with personal protective equipment were destroyed and the homes of 100,000 children faced significant damage in the blast.
Footage taken by a woman living near the warehouse showed thousands of sparks shooting into the air as plumes of black smoke rose above the port.
Crackles that sounded like fireworks could be heard just seconds before an already blazing fire erupted into an explosion as the ammonium nitrate was set alight.
The woman was sent flying backwards by the force of the shock wave as buildings were destroyed and glass shattered.
On Thursday evening Lebanese police officers fired tear gas near parliament as protests mounted.
Lebanese security forces faced off with dozens of anti-government demonstrators as the wreckage from the explosion still littered the entire area.
Anthony Elghossain, a Lebanese-American lawyer, said: ‘Lebanese leaders have killed a country, buried it and p****d on its grave. That’s what people are feeling right now.
People help to clean debris after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts
An aerial view of ruined structures at the port, damaged by an explosion a day earlier
Members of Qatar’s Internal Security Force’s search and rescue unit joined their Lebanese counterparts in looking for survivors on the site of the massive blast at the Beirut port
Emergency workers sent by Russia continue their search and rescue efforts in the ruins of a grain silo destroyed by the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday
‘For 30 years people have been telling themselves it can’t get much worse but look at it now … they played hot potato with a megabomb,’ he said, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The Lebanese investigation into the disaster is expected to be ready by Sunday but some sixteen people linked to the port including its general manager have already been placed under house arrest.
The country’s president, Michel Aoun, said the cause of the blast was still unclear and did not rule out the possibility of a hostile act.
‘The cause has not been determined yet,’ Aoun said. ‘There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act.’
Aoun also said that Lebanon’s ‘paralysed’ political system should be reconsidered in the nod to the protests which blame Tuesday’s explosion on years of mismanagement and corruption.
The blast, caused by a stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate which caught fire, has threatened to reignite anti-government protests in Lebanon. Pictured, riot police in the early hours of this morning
Many Lebanese put the blame squarely on the political elite and the corruption and mismanagement that even before the disaster had pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse. Pictured, demonstrators in the early hours of Friday
The Lebanese Red Cross estimated dozens of people could still be buried under debris from the blast.
Lina Daoud, 45, a resident of the Mar Mikhail which was all-but destroyed in the explosion, described politicians as ‘enemies of the state’, saying: ‘They killed our dreams, our future. Lebanon was a heaven, they have made it hell.’
Politicians were viewed as corrupt and incompetent even before the explosion, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in demonstrations that started in October last year – and now threaten to return with fresh intensity.
‘What state?’ scoffed 42-year-old Melissa Fadlallah, a volunteer cleaning up the hard-hit Mar Mikhail district of the Lebanese capital.
The explosion, which hit just a few hundred metres (yards) away at Beirut’s port, blew all the windows and doors off Mar Mikhail’s pubs, restaurants and apartment homes.
Tear gas was fired to disperse scuffles that broke out in ravaged streets in central Beirut leading to parliament, the wreckage from Tuesday’s explosion still littering the entire area
Lebanese security forces faced off with dozens of anti-government demonstrators last night, angered by the devastating explosion widely seen as the most shocking expression yet of the government’s incompetence
An army of volunteers have taken to the streets to sweep up glass, clear away rubble, rehouse the homeless and repair buildings amid a near-total absence of state support
A massive cleanup operation is underway in Beirut after a massive explosion at the port levelled the surrounding neighbourhoods and left half of city’s buildings with damage
By Wednesday, a spontaneous cleanup operation was underway there, a glimmer of youthful solidarity and hope after a devastating night.
Wearing plastic gloves and a mask, Fadlallah tossed a shard of glass as long as her arm at the door of the state electricity company’s administrative building that looms over the district.
‘For me, this state is a dump – and on behalf of yesterday’s victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump,’ she told AFP.
‘We’re trying to fix this country. We’ve been trying to fix it for nine months but now we’re going to do it our way,’ said Fadlallah.
‘If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?’
A few civil defence workers could be seen examining building structures but they were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.
The cost of the explosion is thought to have topped $3billion, with 300,000 people left homeless, at least 137 dead, and more than 5,000 people injured
A view through a blown-out window shows a destroyed grain silo that is located opposite the burning warehouse – which is now no more than a hole in the ground
In small groups, they energetically swept up glass beneath blown-out buildings, dragging them into plastic bags.
Others clambered up debris-strewn stairwells to offer their homes to residents who had spent the previous night in the open air.
‘We’re sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight,’ said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.
In an instant, the blast left destruction likened to that caused by the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, levelling buildings several hundred metres (yards) away.
Livia Caruso, 30, an Italian national who grew up in Britain, described scenes of ‘blood everywhere’ ‘gaping wounds’ and people ‘screaming and crying’ as the explosion hit, with her husband fainting.
A man picks through the ruins of blown-out buildings in central Beirut following a massive explosion at the city’s port
Volunteers help remove fridges from a destroyed store as a massive cleanup operation gets underway in Beirut
A young man armed with a broom and a rake walks down a destroyed street in Beirut, amid a massive cleanup operation
Her apartment and her husband’s bar, Riwaq Beirut, were destroyed in the blast.
She said she was with her Lebanese husband, Hussein Farran, at the bar about 2km from the port when they felt ‘a bomb’ had dropped on them.
Explosion sparks panic over food shortages in Lebanon
The annihilation of the port in Tuesday’s explosion has further strained food access for a population that relies on imports for 85 per cent of what it eats.
Some 15,000 tonnes of wheat, corn and barley were blasted out of the towering 55-year-old silos and a nearby mill was destroyed.
At least one ship unloading wheat during the explosion was damaged, its stocks inedible.
The day after the blast, hundreds of customers flocked to the Al-Kaboushieh Bakery in Beirut’s Hamra district to stock up on bread.
‘Were completely sold out. Everyone was buying five bags instead of one in case there’d be no more,’ said employee Hayder Mussawi.
Lebanese bread makers and consumers fear the loss of the 120,000-tonne capacity silos will compound months of wheat worries, making bread harder to produce and ultimately more expensive for a population that has already seen its purchasing power slashed.
‘When we saw the silos, we panicked,’ said Ghassan Bou Habib, CEO of Lebanon’s Wooden Bakery pastry franchise.
A liquidity crisis since the autumn saw banks halt dollar transfers abroad, which hampered imports.
Container activity had already declined by 45 per cent in the first half of 2020 compared to last year, according to Blominvest Bank, while the staggering devaluation of the Lebanese pound led to major price hikes.
‘We were already struggling with the (little) wheat and flour that were available. The mills weren’t getting enough or they didn’t have fuel to run,’ Bou Habib said.
‘Glass exploded everywhere and we lunged for the stairs to make our way to safety downstairs but it was complete mayhem, blood everywhere, people screaming, crying and panicking,’ she said.
‘I was in shock, I could barely move or say anything.’
She added: ‘My husband was covered in blood and fainted momentarily before we helped him come to with the smell of alcohol.
‘There was a girl with a gaping wound in her leg, and others with all kinds of non-critical injuries, including myself.’
She said the ‘emotional trauma’ had not set in yet as she explained how she was desperately trying to raise funds to rebuild their bar and home.
City mayor Abboud said the devastation may have left 300,000 people temporarily homeless, adding to the cash-strapped country’s economic misery with an estimated $3 billion in damages.
‘Even in the worst years of the civil war, we didn’t see so much damage over such a large area,’ said analyst Kamal Tarabey.
The disaster came with Lebanon already on its knees with a months-long economic crisis and currency devaluation sparking spiralling poverty even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed that ‘those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price’.
The ammonium nitrate had been stored in a rundown port warehouse with cracks in its walls, officials told AFP.
Security forces launched an investigation in 2019 after the warehouse started to exude a strange odour, concluding the ‘dangerous’ chemicals needed to be removed, but action was not taken.
Analyst and Georgetown University professor Faysal Itani was not optimistic that anybody would be held accountable.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned Wednesday that the destruction of the port and grain silos would cause critical severe flour shortages, in a country heavily reliant on imports.
Social media user voiced outrage at the government, saying such a disaster could only strike because of the ineptitude and corruption riddling Lebanon’s institutions.
Hospitals already stretched to the brink by a spike in coronavirus cases were pushed to new limits by the influx of wounded and were forced to turn many away.
Lebanon has recorded 5,417 cases of COVID-19, including 68 deaths.
‘We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,’ said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer.
He spoke to AFP from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometre from the seat of the blast.
‘We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again,’ he said.