BEIRUT — Since an orphaned shipment of highly explosive chemicals arrived at the port of Beirut in 2013, Lebanese officials treated it the way they have dealt with the country’s lack of electricity, poisonous tap water and overflowing garbage: by bickering and hoping the problem might solve itself.
But the 2,750 tons of high-density ammonium nitrate combusted Tuesday, officials said, unleashing a shock wave on the Lebanese capital that gutted landmark buildings, killed 135 people, wounded at least 5,000 and rendered hundreds of thousands of residents homeless.
The government has vowed to investigate the blast and hold those responsible to account. But as residents waded through the warlike destruction Wednesday to salvage what they could from their homes and businesses, many saw the explosion as the culmination of years of mismanagement and neglect by the country’s politicians.
Nada Chemali, an angry business owner, urged her fellow Lebanese to confront the political leaders, the “big ones” she accused of driving the country to ruin. “Go to their homes!” she shouted.
Her housewares shop and her home had been destroyed, and she expected no government aid to fix them.
“Who from the big ones is going to help us?” she yelled. “Who is going to reimburse us?”
The toll from the blast came into stark relief across Beirut and beyond Wednesday, the day after it left a smoldering crater where the port had been. Beirut’s governor said the damage extended over half of the city, estimating it at $3 billion.
Rescue workers struggled to treat the thousands of wounded with few resources and several hospitals knocked out of commission. “We need everything to hospitalize the victims, and there is an acute shortage of everything,” said Hamad Hassan, the health minister.
No neighborhood was spared. While the damage was greatest along the Mediterranean waterfront and in the residential districts near the port, the shock waves also blew out windows miles away in the hills above Beirut.
Near the city center, the walls of windows on the city’s landmark hotels had been shattered, their curtains left to blow in the wind. In the downtown quarter rebuilt after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, a proud symbol of the country’s rise from the ashes, high-end boutiques and posh restaurants had collapsed inward, littered with their own debris.
Gemmayzeh, an upscale Christian neighborhood known in better times for its historic buildings, abundant churches and rowdy nightlife, resembled a war zone. Cars with smashed windshields lined the curbs. Branches torn from trees blocked roads. Everywhere, it seemed, residents were cleaning glass, rubble and blood from shops, homes and balconies.
But with the country already deep in the throes of a major economic crisis, residents had no idea how they would afford to rebuild.
Roger Matar, 42, said his family’s apartment doors and windows were blown in, scattering window frames on beds and glass across the floors and couches. He had heard a boom, he said, then suddenly “everything was shaking and all the doors and windows were gone.”
Because of the financial crisis, banks have placed strict limits on cash withdrawals to prevent runs.
“The banks are holding our money, and if you need to pay workers, you need cash,” Matar said. “It should be the government that helps, but they are bankrupt. The country is broken.”
After its civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon aimed to rebuild itself as a cultural and financial hub in the Middle East, a Switzerland on the Med with skilled bankers, trilingual professionals and dance clubs that raged till dawn. But former warlords became power-brokers in its weak sectarian democracy, which divided power — and spoils — among the nation’s 18 recognized religious sects.
The system led to chronic political deadlock and widespread corruption, as well as shoddy infrastructure and massive government debt, now roughly 160% of the gross domestic product.
Public dissatisfaction boiled over late last year, when protesters took to the streets calling for the ouster of the political class. The protests toppled the prime minister, but Lebanon’s troubles only grew worse. Since then, the currency has lost 80% of its value, unemployment has spiked and prices have skyrocketed. Lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus have further damaged the economy.
Few Lebanese have any faith that the government will help them or get to the bottom of the explosion that ravaged the capital.
And new details about how such a large quantity of potentially explosive chemicals ended up unprotected near the city’s downtown and several residential neighborhoods seemed only to highlight the government dysfunction Lebanese have long complained of.
The ship carrying the chemicals was en route to Mozambique when it was detained in Beirut. A Lebanese court impounded the cargo, so the ammonium nitrate was transferred to a port hangar.
Over the next six years, port officials repeatedly asked the judge to find a way to get rid of the chemicals.
In a 2016 letter, they cited “the serious danger posed by keeping this shipment in the warehouses in an inappropriate climate” and asked that it be dealt with “to preserve the safety of the port and its workers.”
The port’s director, Hassan Koraytem, said that port officials were told the materials would be auctioned off, but the auction never happened and the judiciary ignored the port authority’s letters.
He said he was unaware of the power of the chemicals, so the port took no special precautions to protect them.
“Now we are living a national catastrophe,” he said. “There is no more port.”
Judicial officials could not be reached for comment.
The blast struck particularly heavy blows against the very hospitals Beirut needs to recover from it. At least two were so damaged in the explosion that they shut their doors, with no clear sign of when they would reopen.
At Rosary Hospital, a small Catholic hospital near the port, the explosion had tossed patients from their beds, killed a nurse and broken the legs of the nurse who ran the operating room, said Dr. Joseph Elias, the head of the cardiology department.
He estimated the damage at more than $5 million.
“All the elevators are broken, all the respirators, all the monitors, all the doors — everything is destroyed,” he said. “It is just the walls of the hospital that are still here.”
Like Beirut’s residents, the hospital expected no help from the government.
“We aren’t expecting any support because there is no state,” said Tony Toufic, a hospital engineer.
Saint George Hospital University Medical Center, which had been open for more than a century, including throughout the civil war, also shut down.
Four of its nurses and at least 13 patients were killed in the blast, said Dr. Alexandre Nehme, the chief medical officer. Everyone else had to be evacuated in the dark because the electricity was cut off, while new patients wounded in the blast were arriving and hoping for treatment.
“This is as bad as Sept. 11,” said Dr. Raja Ashou, head of radiology. “For us, it is like that.”
For many, the anger they felt was more acute because the country’s latest catastrophe had been not caused by a historic foe but was self-inflicted.
“I wish it had been an Israeli explosion and not silly neglect from our leaders,” said Dr. Dominique Daou. “It would be much easier, not being hit from inside your home.”
Lebanon’s preexisting troubles will hamper its ability to recover from the explosion. Even people with money will struggle to rebuild their homes and restart businesses if they can’t get that money out of the bank.
“As you can see, my shop is barely standing,” said Iman Hashem, standing amid shattered glass in a coffee shop that bears her name.
She had not renewed her insurance because her bank had barred her from transferring money, and business had nearly ground to a halt as the economy tanked. Then the blast hit.
“Now it’s all gone. The money in the till got stolen,” she said. “Where am I to begin to rebuild now?”