Beirut: Lebanese rescue workers searched for survivors in the mangled wreckage of buldings on Wednesday and investigators blamed negligence for a massive warehouse explosion that sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 135 people.
The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.
More than 5,000 people were injured in Tuesday's explosion at Beirut port and tens of thousands were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered glass miles inland. The Lebanese Health Minister said 80 people were still missing.
Death toll expected rise
The death toll was expected to rise from the blast that officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.
The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections. The blast rattled buildings on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.
As Lebanese rescue workers searched for survivors in the mangled wreckage of buldings on Wednesday, Marwan Abboud, the Governor of Beirut, has stated around half of the city has been damaged and that the repairs will cost around $3 billion.
President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.
He said in a national address the government was "determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable." An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on "inaction and negligence", saying "nothing was done" by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.
The cabinet ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters. The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.
Deadly chemical was lying at port for last 6 years
The volatile chemical that Lebanese authorities blame for Tuesday's lethal blast in Beirut had been lying in storage at the city's port for six years in spite of warnings from customs officials about its hazards, documents show.
The ammonium nitrate arrived as cargo on the ship Rhosus in 2014, according to two letters issued by the director general of Lebanese Customs. For reasons that are unclear, dockworkers unloaded the chemical, which can be used to make fertilizers and explosives, and put it into storage.
Customs officials later asked judicial authorities at least twice to issue orders for the ammonium nitrate to be confiscated or re-exported, according to the letters. In one of the letters, dated May 3, 2016, the director general at that time, Shafik Merhe, warned of "the extreme danger" from storing the chemical in a warehouse "in these unsuitable weather conditions." The material posed a risk to the staff and the port, he said.
'Welding started the fire that ignited chemicals'
Lebanese broadcaster LBCI reported that the Rhosus had been scheduled to sail with its cargo from Beirut six years ago but stayed at the port due to a mechanical failure. Workers welding a door on Tuesday started a fire that ignited the chemicals, LBCI said, citing people who attended a Supreme Council of Defense briefing after the blast.
Port officials under house arrest
Lebanon's government decided to put all officials at the Port of Beirut under house arrest after the massive explosion at the facility on Tuesday, LBCI TV reported.
Former officials who worked at the port since 2014 will also be under house arrest pending investigation into the blast, LBCI TV reported, citing decisions by the government.
Catastrophe, says Beirut mayor
Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon's financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.
"This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon." Beirut's mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage estimated ran into billions of dollars.
The health minister said the death toll had climbed to 113, as the search for victims continued after shockwaves from the blast hurled some of the victims into the sea.
Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on those still missing. Many of those killed were port and custom employees, people working in the area or those driving nearby during the Tuesday evening rush hour.
The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues as hospitals were overwhelmed.
Beirut's Clemenceau Medical Center was "like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts," said Sara, one of its nurses.
"This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone," said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area, who blamed the political elite, calling them "thieves and looters".
Support pours in
Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies.
Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.
The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political and economic change in Lebanon, also offered help. Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus offered specialised search and rescue teams.
"This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class," said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.
For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had been rebuilt.
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.
Beirut driver Abou Khaled said ministers "are the first that should be held accountable for this disaster. They committed a crime against the people of this nation with their negligence." The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation's main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.
Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring Syria and has no trade or other ties with its other neighbour Israel.
"On a scale, this explosion is scaled down from a nuclear bomb rather than up from a conventional bomb," said Roland Alford, managing director of British explosive ordnance disposal firm Alford Technologies. "This is huge."