A massive explosion has rocked Lebanon’s capital Beirut, killing at least 78 people, injuring almost 4,000, flattening much of the port, and sending a shock wave that damaged buildings across the city.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one Australian had been killed and Australia’s embassy had been “impacted significantly” in the explosion.
“We can report all of the staff there are well, but the building that the embassy is in has been significantly compromised. I’m pleased that apart from some cuts and scratches, our staff are all OK,” he said.
“But our sympathies to all of the people of Lebanon. There is such a large Lebanese Australian community here and they would be worried about loved ones.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said some embassy staff were hit by flying glass when the building’s windows were blown out.
The afternoon blast destroyed homes, offices and other buildings around the port district.
Thick smoke billowed after a large white cloud and shock wave erupted from port warehouses near central Beirut, shattering windows, overturning vehicles and blowing in doors across the city.
Lebanon’s Health Minister, Hamad Hasan, said 78 people had been killed and almost 4,000 injured in the incident, with more bodies still buried in the rubble.
Officials said they expected the death toll to rise further as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead.
It is the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, a city on the Mediterranean Sea home to roughly 2.2 million people, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
Beirut hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.
Dozens of ambulances ferried the injured from the port area, where the wounded lay on the ground.
One medic said 200 to 300 people had been admitted to a single emergency department. “I’ve never seen this. It was horrible,” said the medic, who gave her name as Rouba.
There have been reports of damaged buildings at least 10 kilometres from the blast.
Mr Morrison said there were normally around 20,000 Australians in Lebanon, although he did not know how many had returned home because of COVID-19.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, which he said was “unacceptable”.
An orange-coloured cloud was seen over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.
Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said the incident might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port.
The explosion struck with the force of a magnitude 3.5 earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences centre GFZ.
There are reports the blast was felt in Cyprus, an island nation more than 160 kilometres away.
Without offering any evidence, US President Donald Trump said the US military believed the explosion was caused by a “bomb of some kind”.
“They seem to think it was an attack,” Mr Trump said.
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Mr Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2km from the port.
Israeli officials said the country had nothing to do with blast and said Israel was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance. Israel has fought several wars with Lebanon.
Shiite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told local media.
Video taken by residents showed a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved.
The fire then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a thick cloud and a shock wave over the city.
“It was like a nuclear explosion,” said Walid Abdo, a 43-year-old school teacher in the neighbourhood of Gemayzeh near Beirut.
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said it started as small explosions like firecrackers, then the huge blast erupted and he was thrown off his feet. His clothes were torn.
“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” a witness told Reuters.
Another witness said she saw heavy grey smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames of fire and black smoke.
“All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos,” she said.
Kilometres from the port, balconies were knocked down, windows shattered, streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars and motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.
One woman covered in blood from the waist up walked down a trashed street while talking furiously on her phone. On another street, a woman with a bloodied face looked distraught, staggering through traffic with two friends at her side
The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse, hit both by a financial crisis and coronavirus restrictions.
Many have lost jobs, while the worth of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged in value against the US dollar and many have been thrown into poverty.
Cherine Yazbeck, a producer at the ABC’s Beirut bureau, said she had taken an injured man to Najjar Hospital, about three kilometres from the blast, because there were no ambulances or taxis available.
The hospital was overwhelmed, she said, with the director reporting inadequate staff and drug supplies to treat the wounded.
However she said locals, weary from political instability and the coronavirus pandemic, were not showing signs of panic.
“After the economic crisis, corona and now this, everybody is tired, nobody was crying,” she said. “You hit someone in the face once, twice, three times … and then there’s no reaction anymore.”