The terrifying explosion which devastated the Lebanese capital on Tuesday August 4 was probably caused by the explosion of a stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. Throughout history, this odorless white salt used as the basis of many fertilizers has caused many industrial disasters around the world.
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In 2015, 173 people died in Tianjin, northeast China, after a warehouse exploded containing more than 2,400 tons of chemicals, including 800 tons of ammonium nitrate. The fires caused by the disaster were only brought under control after several days and eight more explosions, claiming the lives of 104 Chinese firefighters.
Two years earlier, in the United States, an explosion at the West Fertilizer Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people. The plant's stock of ammonium nitrate had exploded due to an arson attack, but investigators also questioned the lack of storage standards for this dangerous chemical component.
The circumstances of this tragedy recall those of the explosion of the AZF factory in the southern suburbs of Toulouse on September 21, 2001. Stacked in bulk in a hangar, some 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate suddenly exploded, causing death of 31 people, and injuring nearly 2500. The explosion was heard more than 80 km around.
Rain of molten metal on Brest
Even more tragic, the industrial accidents of the first half of the 20th century sometimes caused the death of several hundred people. In 1947, 581 people died in Texas City, after a fire caused the explosion in its port of a French ship containing more than 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate. Mobilized to prevent the disaster, the city's firefighters were exterminated: only one survived the explosion. The ship's anchor, weighing nearly two tons, was found 2.6 kilometers from the site of the explosion.
The same year, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the port of Brest was devastated by the explosion of the Norwegian cargo ship Ocean Liberty, which was carrying more than 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, petroleum, paraffin and mechanical parts. Felt up to twenty kilometers away, the blast of the explosion rained pieces of molten metal on the city, killing 26 people and seriously injuring hundreds more. More than 4000 buildings and houses are devastated.
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However, it was before World War II that one of the very first accidents occurred, and one of the deadliest. In 1921, in Oppau, Germany, a silo at a BASF factory containing 4,000 tonnes of a mixture of ammonium nitrate and sulfate exploded under misidentified circumstances. 561 people are killed, and most of the city is destroyed. Testimonies report that buildings were damaged up to 80 kilometers from the explosion.