Beirut explosion rocks Lebanon's capital city

By Tara John, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes, Veronica Rocha, Meg Wagner, Joshua Berlinger, Adam Renton, Zamira Rahim and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 8:59 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020
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12:00 p.m. ET, August 5, 2020

You might hear about ammonium nitrate today. Here's you need to know.

From CNN's Jessie Yeung

A helicopter fights a fire at the scene of an explosion on August 4.
A helicopter fights a fire at the scene of an explosion on August 4. STR/AFP/Getty Images

We're still not exactly sure what caused the deadly explosion in Beirut yesterday, but Lebanon's prime minister said an investigation would focus on an estimated 2,750 metric tons of the explosive ammonium nitrate stored at a warehouse.

So what is ammonium nitrate? Also known as AN, it's a compound of ammonia and nitrogen, is a highly volatile material used in agricultural fertilizers and bombs.

Disasters involving AN are rare, considering the US uses millions of tons of it every year in fertilizers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "Pure" solid AN is quite stable, but if the compound is mixed with any contaminants, even in small traces, the mixture becomes much more prone to detonation  — which is why there are normally stringent government guidelines for how to treat and store it properly.

"In general, the conditions of AN storage are crucial to the safety and stability of the AN. Materials co-located or stored with AN may play a role in its sensitivity to explosion," the EPA said in a 2015 guide.

For instance, AN shouldn't be stored with any fuel, organic materials, chlorides or metals, said the guide — all potential contaminants. The EPA guidelines also recommend fire resistant walls in the storage unit, noncombustible flooring, and — crucially — controlled temperatures.

AN doesn't burn, but if exposed to heat, it can melt — which releases combustible toxic gases that can cause an explosion. It's even more dangerous if there is a large supply of AN all stored together, because once a small section of AN begins to melt and explode, the resulting heat can set off the rest of the supply.

Some history: One of the worst disasters in US history involving a form of ammonia occurred in April 1947 when a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate caught fire while docked in Texas City. The fire caused an explosion and additional fires that damaged more than 1,000 buildings and killed nearly 400 people, according to the website of the Texas Historical Association.

For perspective, that explosion was triggered by 2,300 US tons (about 2087 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate, according to US Homeland Security.

And the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, a US domestic terror attack that killed 169 people and injured 467, used only two US tons (1.8 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate.

11:06 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Here's a satellite view of the scene, before and after the deadly blast

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

August 5.
August 5. Planet Labs, Inc.

This satellite image from Planet Labs, Inc, showed the destruction left in the wake of yesterday's deadly explosion in Beirut.

At least 100 people were killed in the blast, and the death toll could rise as many more people are reported missing. At least 4,000 people were injured in the explosion.

For comparison, here's what the port area looked like before the blast:

May 31.
May 31. Planet Labs, Inc.

10:39 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Beirut port officials to be placed under house arrest, minister says

From CNN’s Mostafa Salem

The Lebanese cabinet has ordered that “officials” involved in the Beirut port explosion be placed under house arrest “in the coming days,” the Lebanese Minister of Displaced People Ghada Shreim said without providing further details.

"There are officials who will stay in their homes in the coming days, pending the conclusion of the investigation and the results are issued. The house arrest will include those who took part in the storage, guarding and investigating of Hangar 12 from 2014 until today," Shreim told reporters at the end of today's cabinet meeting.


10:22 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Every business in Beirut is impacted by the blast, economic official says

From CNN's Schams Elwazer

An injured person sits by a restaurant on August 5.
An injured person sits by a restaurant on August 5. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Every single business in Beirut has been affected by yesterday's deadly blast, Lebanon's Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said.

“There is not one apartment in Beirut that wasn’t impacted, not one businesses that wasn’t impacted – whether the storefront of the goods” he said. 

”The impact on the economy is massive and the port has been practically erased,” Nehme told CNBC Arabia in an interview Wednesday, adding it was too soon to fully gauge the scale of the damage on the economy. 

“No one can know the numbers right now. One billion [dollars], two billion, three, five, ten – we can’t know. It’s too soon. But it’s very high and more than our capacity,” he added. 

He said the government’s priority was to secure people’s basic necessities – mainly food but also supplies to help repair the extensive damage to homes and infrastructure across the city. 

9:58 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Turkey sends rescue and health care teams to Beirut

From CNN's Gul Tuysuz

Turkey is sending search and rescue teams, health care workers, medical supplies and other urgent humanitarian aid to help in the aftermath of the blast in Beirut, according to the Turkish foreign ministry.

Turkey is also planning on setting up a field hospital, the ministry said in a written statement. 

“We will continue to provide any and all help in solidarity and cooperation with our friendly and brotherly country Lebanon during these times of hardship which we hope they will overcome quickly,” the statement said.  
9:42 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Qatar sends medical supplies to Lebanon for explosion victims

From CNN's Jomana Karadsheh

Qatar sent a plane filled with medical supplies to Lebanon to help victims of the Beirut explosion, according to a tweet from the Qatari government.

The first plane arrived today, and the government will send three more carrying equipment for hospitals.

"Following directives by HH the Amir and in support of the Lebanese people, #Qatar has sent its first plane with medical supplies to help treat those injured by yesterday's explosion. This will be followed by 3 more aircraft, carrying equipment for two complete field hospitals," the government tweet read.
9:49 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Lebanon’s health sector is suffering from two crises, Covid-19 and explosion aftermath, health minister says

From CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq 

A person stands by damaged buildings and vehicles on August 5.
A person stands by damaged buildings and vehicles on August 5. Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Lebanon's Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Tuesday’s explosion that killed at least 100 people and wounded 4,000 added to the country's health care system crisis as it has been already struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We in the health sector are suffering from a crisis in the face of the coronavirus, to which this human and health catastrophe has now been added," Hassan said according to Lebanon’s state-run NNA news.

"It requires everyone to engage positively from politicians, political parties, authorities, and from all friendly and brotherly countries because we suffer from a shortage in the number of beds and a lack of equipment to help injured people and those are in critical conditions," Hassan added.


10:01 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Here's what we know so far about the Beirut blast

People walk past a damaged building on August 5.
People walk past a damaged building on August 5. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

deadly explosion shook Beirut yesterday. The Lebanon capital's 4 million residents woke this morning to the full horror and scale of the damage to their city, lives, and livelihoods.

If you're just reading in now, here's what we know so far about the massive blast:

  • What happened: A massive explosion ripped through central Beirut, near the city's port. It sent up a huge mushroom cloud-shaped shockwave, flipped cars and damaged distant buildings. It was felt as far as Cyprus, hundreds of miles away, and registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake in the Lebanese capital.
  • The victims: At least 100 people were killed and 4,000 wounded, state-run media reported, citing the Red Cross. And the death toll could rise today as hundreds more people have been reported missing.
  • The possible source: We're still not exactly sure what caused the blast, but a warehouse storing thousands of tons of unsecured highly explosive material has emerged as a possible source. Lebanon's prime minister said an investigation would focus on the warehouse.
  • The damage: Beirut's governor said it caused up to $5 billion in damage, but at this point, the full extent of the damage is yet to be known. Countries around the world have offered condolences and pledged aid for what the Lebanese Red Cross is calling an "unprecedented and very large" disaster.

Watch CNN's Ben Wedeman report:

9:18 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

At least 300,000 people displaced by explosion, Beirut governor says

From CNN's Schams Elwazer

A person looks out of the collapsed facade of an apartment on August 5.
A person looks out of the collapsed facade of an apartment on August 5. Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

At least 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes by Tuesday's devastating explosion, Beirut's governor Marwan Abboud said in an interview with Jordan's state-owned channel Al Mamlaka.

"There are more than 300,000 Lebanese citizens unable to sleep in their own homes," Abboud said during the telephone interview. "Half of Beirut's population have homes that are unliveable for the foreseeable future — for the next two weeks."

Images and videos from the immediate aftermath of the blast show homes destroyed and covered with shattered glass.

At least 100 people were killed, and 4,000 more were wounded in the explosion, according to state media. That death toll is expected to rise as hundreds remain missing.