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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2:33 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Beirut explosion death toll rises to 80

From CNN's Charbel Mallo in Abu Dhabi

At least 80 people have died and more than 4,000 were wounded after the massive explosion in central Beirut on Tuesday, Lebanon's Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Wednesday morning. 

Hassan said four hospitals are out of service because of damage from the blast. 

He said the death toll will likely increase. 

2:28 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

"This is not just ammonium nitrate," former CIA operative says of explosion

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative with extensive experience in the Middle East, said videos of Tuesday's blast showed that while ammonium nitrate may have been present in the warehouse, he does not believe it was responsible for the massive explosion that ensued.

Initial reports blamed the blast on a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port, according to Lebanese state news agency NNA.

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, later said that 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at a port warehouse without safety measures, "endangering the safety of citizens," according to a statement.

Baer said he thinks that there were military munitions and propellants present. He speculated it could have been a weapons cache, but it's unclear who it belongs to.

"It was clearly a military explosive," he said. "It was not fertilizer like ammonium nitrate. I'm quite sure of that."

"You look at that orange ball (of fire), and it's clearly, like I said, a military explosive."

Baer noted that white powder seen in the videos of the incident before the major blast are likely an indicator that ammonium nitrate was present and burning. He also noticed a lot of munitions going off ahead of the larger explosion.

No evidence of an attack: Baer said while he believes the explosion does not look like solely ammonium nitrate, there's still no evidence that this was an attack. The government has blamed poor management and vowed to get to the bottom of it.

"It almost looks like an accident," he said. "It was incompetence, and maybe it was corruption, but the question is whether it was military explosives, who was it going to or why was it stored there?"

Baer isn't confident we'll ever know the truth.

"I've worked in Lebanon for years, and no one is going to want to admit they kept military explosives at the port. It's a stupid thing to do."

Investigation launched: Prime Minister Diab's account appeared to be backed by Lebanon's General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who said a "highly explosive material" had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes' walk from Beirut's shopping and nightlife districts.

The Prime Minister has launched an investigation into the explosion, saying he "will not rest until we find those responsible for what happened, hold them accountable, and impose maximum punishment."

As yet, there is no clear evidence to suggest the source of the blast.

2:28 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

What is ammonium nitrate?

From CNN's Jessie Yeung

Smoke rises in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, August 4.
Smoke rises in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, August 4. Hassan Ammar/AP

Authorities are still investigating what exactly caused Tuesday's deadly explosion in Beirut, but public statements from key Lebanese officials have begun to focus on ammonium nitrate that was kept in a warehouse near the port.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a statement that an estimated 2,750 metric tons of the substance had been stored there for the past six years. Lebanon's general security chief said the "highly explosive material" had been confiscated several years ago.

Ammonium nitrate, a compound of ammonia and nitrogen, is best known for being used in fertilizers and -- because it's incredibly volatile -- bombs.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 169 people and injured 467, was carried out using two US tons of ammonium nitrate.

One of the worst accidents 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 blaze caused an explosion and additional fires that killed almost 400 people and damaged more than 1,000 buildings, according to the website of the Texas Historical Association. The explosion was triggered by 2,300 US tons of ammonium nitrate, according to US Homeland Security.

1:31 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

This man watched the chaos unfold in Beirut, as his wife stayed on the phone thousands of miles away

From CNN's Angus Watson in Sydney

Serge Mahdessian and his wife Deanna Torus.
Serge Mahdessian and his wife Deanna Torus. Photo supplied by Deanna Torus.

Hairdresser Serge Mahdessian was working roughly 8,500 miles away from his wife, who was asleep in Melbourne, Australia when the explosion destroyed his salon in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut. 

“It was so chaotic, it was like something out of a dream,” Mahdessian told CNN over the phone. "People running, holding their arms, their legs -- there was so much blood,” he said. “I could have died today, instead I was only hurt a little on my hands because I was quick to run inside.”

Phone footage taken by Mahdessian shows crumpled cars lining a street strewn with broken glass and rubble.

Awoken in the night: The call from his wife, Deanna Torus, came quickly -- she’d been woken in the middle of the night with news of the massive blast just a short distance north of where her husband was at work.

“I called Serge straight away and he was screaming over the phone, I was crying. He was extremely shaken up but was OK except for an injury on his arm and hands -- he flew to the bathroom to be safe," she said. “I was hit with anxiety. My body was shaking. I felt hopeless, like I couldn’t do anything.”

Separated for years: The young couple married last year after five and a half years together, but are used to being separated. Serge’s visa application, a process that has cost about $7,000 to date, has been rejected multiple times.

Covid-19 travel bans have piled on the misery.

“We’re mentally and physically exhausted. We’ve been together for five and a half years, refused visas and when I thought, what’s next? I never thought that it would be an explosion down the street from where my husband works,” Torus said.

Australia has a large community of Lebanese expatriates and people of Lebanese descent. The 2016 census determined that there are around 75,000 Australians with Lebanese heritage, mostly living in Melbourne and Sydney. The Australian government believes that there were 20,000 Australians in Lebanon before expats returned from around the world due to Covid-19.

The nightmare continues for Mahdessian, who says that the collapsed Lebanese economy, Covid-19 and an accident of this magnitude have made Beirut "unsafe."

Mahdessian said his aunt, a nurse, was receiving treatment for a broken shoulder and a head injury after a wall fell on her while working a shift in an Ashrafieh hospital. 

He said they had to take her to another hospital because "no one was accepting people."

"The emergency room looked like a war had begun, the children -- their hands, their legs, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing," he said.

1:10 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Latin American countries react to Beirut explosion

From CNN's Radina Gigova in Atlanta

Damaged buildings are seen after the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, August 4.
Damaged buildings are seen after the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, August 4. Bilal Jawich/Xinhua/Getty Images

More countries in Latin America are sending their condolences to the Beirut explosion victims and relatives. 

The region is home to a large diaspora of Lebanese expatriates and people of Lebanese descent.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on his official Twitter account Tuesday evening that he is "deeply saddened by the scenes of the explosion in Beirut. Brazil is home to the largest community of Lebanese in the world and, therefore, we feel this tragedy as if it were in our territory. I express my solidarity with the families of the fatal victims and the wounded."

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday evening on his official Twitter account: "Sad and unfortunate the situation in Beirut, Lebanon. Our condolences to the families of the victims and to the entire sister nation."

Panama's Foreign Ministry tweeted: "The National Government expresses its deep dismay at the terrible explosion that occurred in Beirut, while expressing its solidarity with the Republic and the People of Lebanon and expressing its condolences to the families of the deceased and injured."

And Ecuador's Foreign Ministry said: "Ecuador stands in solidarity with the Republic of Lebanon in light of the explosions registered in its capital, Beirut. @CancilleriaEc expresses its condolences to the families of the deceased." The ministry said 150 Ecuadorians reside in Lebanon and "so far there are no victims." 

12:30 a.m. ET, August 5, 2020

Explosives expert shares his thoughts on video from the scene

Smoke rises from an explosion site at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4.
Smoke rises from an explosion site at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4. Bilal Jawich/Xinhua via Getty images

Tony May, a former explosives investigator for the US Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told CNN that video of the blast in Beirut offers important clues to what happened.

"I've done a lot of accident investigations with the government, both national and international, and it is clear to me that this was a large amount of explosives or energetic material stored in a building that caught fire and that fire propagated to the explosives, causing the accident," said May, who now works as a security and explosives consultant.

No yellow smoke: May said when he was in Baghdad, the telltale sign of an ammonium nitrate explosive was a yellow smoke cloud. The pink or red cloud that was seen, he said, was "not consistent with ammonium nitrate."

However, May said that doesn't necessarily mean ammonium nitrate wasn't involved. It could just mean there were "other items as well," he said.

White flashes: The white flashes seen in different parts of the video may indicate that smaller explosions were occurring in the lead-up to the large shockwave, May said.

11:19 p.m. ET, August 4, 2020

What it was like in CNN's Beirut bureau when the blast hit

From CNN's Ben Wedeman in Beirut, Lebanon

It's an earthquake, I thought, as the CNN bureau in central Beirut shook Tuesday with a violence I'd never felt before. I crouched down on the floor, waiting for more tremors.

A split second later, I heard glass shatter and the crunch of metal. Peering through the window, I saw a cloud of yellow dust coming toward me, the street strewn with rubble and broken glass. People were running around and shouting, trying to understand what had happened.

I stumbled around the rest of the bureau. A window frame had been torn from the wall. The studio was a jumble of equipment, cables were scattered all over, but the tripod with its camera was still in place on the floor.

The bureau's glass entrance, with its big, red CNN logo, lay shattered in the corridor.

A few minutes later, a doorman named Mustafa, a lanky, normally good-spirited chap, came running in. "Are you ok?" he shouted. "Is everyone fine?"

"I'm fine," I responded. Nothing had happened to me.

Read more about Wedeman's experience here:

10:58 p.m. ET, August 4, 2020

One Japanese national was injured in the Beirut blast. South Korea says its embassy sustained minor damage

From CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki in Tokyo and Jake Kwon in Seoul, South Korea

A Japanese citizen suffered a minor injury during the explosion in Beirut Tuesday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Suga offered his condolences to the victims of the blast and said that the injured individual is believed to be the only Japanese casualty.

In South Korea: The country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it has not received any reports of South Korean victims.

“Immediately after the incident, the South Korean Embassy in Lebanon checked on the well being of our citizens using local Korean group chat. There has been no report of casualties. The Embassy is cooperating with the government of Lebanon to take necessary measures to protect our citizens," the statement says. 

The ministry said the South Korean Embassy in Beirut, which is about 10 km (6 miles) from the blast site, was not seriously affected by the explosion. Only two glass window panes from the fourth floor of the building were damaged.

10:36 p.m. ET, August 4, 2020

Lebanese officials raise concerns with the US after Trump called the Beirut explosion an "attack"

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

A general view of destruction along a street in the center of Lebanon's capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut on August 4.
A general view of destruction along a street in the center of Lebanon's capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut on August 4. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese officials raised concerns with US diplomats about using the word “attack” to describe the blast in Beirut Tuesday after President Donald Trump did so at a news conference, two US State Department officials said. 

Trump offered sympathy and assistance to the people of Lebanon Tuesday after the explosions, which left dozens dead and thousands injured, referring to the incident as a “terrible attack.” 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that the government of Lebanon is investigating the cause of the explosion and the US looks forward to that outcome. 

What we know so far: Initial reports blamed the explosion on a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port, according to Lebanese state news agency NNA.

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, later said that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at a port warehouse without safety measures, "endangering the safety of citizens," according to a statement.

The Prime Minister called the storage of the material "unacceptable" and called for an investigation into the cause of the blast, with the results released within five days, the statement said.

Lebanese officials have not called the explosion an attack.