Updated at 6:10 a.m. ET
A huge explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and shattering windows and damaging buildings across a wide swath of the city, according to officials. The blast sent a huge mushroom cloud into the sky, seemingly emanating from a spot close to where a large fire had been burning.
“This is a great national disaster,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. The country is already struggling with a terrible economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Beirut is grieving,” Diab said. He added that there will be “accountability” for those who are deemed responsible.
The dramatic explosion was caught on numerous videos by people who had been filming a fire at an industrial port in Lebanon’s capital.
Officials said nearly 4,000 people had been hurt — the latest update as damage and fatality reports came in from across the city. The tally could rise as officials account for people who have been reported missing and as crews gain access to collapsed buildings.
The Lebanese Red Cross said 75 of its ambulances and 375 EMTs have responded to the crisis. Earlier, the group said it was receiving “thousands of calls” on its emergency line and implored people to use the line “only for critical and severe cases.”
Several hours after the blast, emergency crews still had not been able to reach all of the wounded people in their homes, the Lebanese Red Cross said. It added that it has set up first aid and triage stations in outdoor areas.
Early reports suggested the explosion was triggered by a fire at a large fireworks warehouse. Some of the video recordings show what looked to be flashes of smaller explosions before the separate and much larger blast, which generated an enormous shock wave.
The government has launched an investigation into the cause of the explosion.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security, visited the blast site Tuesday. He told Lebanese journalists that the explosion was likely powered by highly explosive materials that had been confiscated and stored at the port.
Prime Minister Diab said that the warehouse had been storing an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to an account by President Michel Aoun.
“Facts about this dangerous warehouse” have been known for at least six years, Diab said.
Images from the scene show entire blocks of buildings wrecked along the port, their structural supports crumpled by the blast. Numerous fires were started, sending black smoke into the sky.
The damage is so severe, according to LBCI Lebanon News, that military bulldozers had to clear roadways for firefighters and ambulances to reach the devastated area in the port.
“Residents in the city’s upmarket Christian-majority neighborhood, Gemmayzeh, told NPR almost every building looked damaged by the explosion,” NPR’s Ruth Sherlock reports.
Hours after the blast, numerous Beirut hospitals were still reportedly overwhelmed, and authorities were urging residents to donate blood.
The director of Beirut’s Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital told state media that more than 400 people injured by the explosion had arrived at that medical center. He added that the hospital didn’t have enough beds for all of them.
Photos from the aftermath show paramedics and emergency crews tending to people with a range of injuries.
President Michel Aoun is ordering Lebanon’s armed forces to conduct patrols in affected parts of the capital and its suburbs to control security and to aid recovery efforts.
In addition to the casualties and structural damage, the explosion at Beirut’s vital port threatens to deepen Lebanon’s dire economic crisis. As journalist Habib Battah notes, the port handles billions of dollars’ worth of imports, “including national wheat silos.”
“Homes shattered for miles,” Battah says. “Damages will be massive and could not come at worse time when everyone is broke and hungry.”
Battah says his “whole body” was moved by the explosion’s shock wave — despite being 10 miles away from the port.