Ammonium nitrate could be cause of explosion in Beirut 1:23
(CNN) - As Lebanon's investigation into the devastating explosion in Beirut continues, officials have pinpointed a possible cause: a massive shipment of agricultural fertilizers that authorities say was stored in the Beirut port without safety precautions for years. , despite warnings from local officials.
Recently reviewed documents by CNN reveal that a shipment of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut on a Russian-owned ship in 2013. The ship, called MV Rhosus, was destined for Mozambique, but was stopped in Beirut due to Financial difficulties that also created riots with the ship's Russian and Ukrainian crew.
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Once arrived, the ship never left Beirut port, according to Lebanese Customs Director Badri Daher, despite repeated warnings from him and others that the cargo was the equivalent of "a floating bomb."
"Due to the extreme danger posed by these items stored in inappropriate weather conditions, we reiterate our request to Port Authorities to immediately re-export the goods to maintain the safety of the port and those who work there," wrote Daher's predecessor, Chafic Merhi. , in a 2016 letter addressed to a judge involved in the case.
Lebanese authorities have not named MV Rhosus as the source of the substance that finally exploded in Beirut on Tuesday, but Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the devastating blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. He added that the substance had been stored for six years in the port warehouse without security measures, "endangering the safety of citizens."
Lebanon's chief of general security also said a "highly explosive material" had been confiscated years before and stored in the warehouse, which is just a few minutes' walk from Beirut's shopping and nightlife districts. Tuesday's massive explosion, which shook the capital, left at least 135 dead and 5,000 wounded.
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In 2013, the MV Rhosus departed from Batumi, Georgia, bound for Mozambique, according to the ship's path and the record of its captain Boris Prokoshev.
It carried 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, an industrial chemical commonly used worldwide as a fertilizer, and in explosives for mining.
The Moldovan flag ship stopped in Greece to refuel. It was then that the owner of the ship told Russian and Ukrainian sailors that she had run out of money and that they would have to collect additional cargo to cover the travel costs, leading to a detour to Beirut.
The ship was owned by a company called Teto Shipping, which crew members said was owned by Igor Grechushkin, a businessman from Khabarovsk residing in Cyprus.
Once in Beirut, the MV Rhosus was detained by the local port authorities due to "serious violations in the operation of a ship", unpaid port fees and complaints filed by the Russian and Ukrainian crew, according to the Russian Union of Seafarers (affiliated with the International Federation of Transport Workers, ITF), which represented Russian sailors, told CNN.
The ship never resumed its journey.
Sailors had been on the ship for 11 months with little supplies, according to Prokoshev. "I wrote to Putin every day ... Eventually we had to sell the fuel and use the money to hire a lawyer because there was no help, the owner did not even provide us with food or water," Prokoshev said in a radio interview with Echo Moscow on Wednesday.
Eventually they abandoned the ship. "According to our information, the Russian crew was later repatriated to their homeland ... wages were not paid," the union told CNN.
"At that time, there were particularly dangerous goods on board the dry cargo ship: ammonium nitrate, which the Beirut port authorities did not allow to unload or transfer to another ship," he added.
In 2014 Mikhail Voytenko, who runs an online publication that tracks maritime activity, described the ship as a "floating bomb."
CNN made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Grechushkin over a Cyprus phone number.
According to emails exchanged by Prokoshev and a Beirut-based lawyer Charbel Dagher, who was representing the crew in Lebanon, ammonium nitrate was unloaded at the Beirut port in November 2014 and stored in a hangar.
It was then held in that hangar for six years, despite repeated warnings from Lebanese Customs Director Badri Daher about the "extreme danger" posed by the cargo.
But public court documents that CNN obtained through leading Lebanese human rights activist Wadih Al-Asmar reveal that Daher and his predecessor Merhi appealed to the Beirut courts to help get rid of the dangerous products multiple times. From 2014.
«In our memorandums 19320/2014 dated 5/12/2014 and 6/6/2015 […] we request that your honorable order the responsible Port Authorities to re-export ammonium nitrate that was taken from the Rhosus ship and placed in customs hangar number 12 in the port of Beirut, ”wrote Daher in 2017.
At times, he even offered to sell the dangerous cargo to the Lebanese army, according to court documents, but to no avail.
Daher confirmed to CNN earlier Wednesday that his office sent "a total of six letters to legal authorities" but that authorities never responded to any of his letters.
"The Port Authority should not have allowed the ship to unload the chemicals at the port," he said. "The chemicals originally went to Mozambique, not Lebanon."
On Wednesday, the CEO of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem told local television channel OTV: “We stored the material in warehouse number 12 in the port of Beirut according to a court order. We knew they were dangerous materials, but not to that extent.
Kraytem also said that the issue of removing the explosive material had been raised by the State Security and Customs agencies, but that the problem had not been "solved".
"Customs and State Security sent letters [to the authorities] asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this problem to be resolved, but to no avail," said Kraytem.
Maintenance was performed at the warehouse door just hours before Tuesday's explosion, he added. "State Security asked us to fix a warehouse door and we did it at noon, but what happened in the afternoon I have no idea," he said.
1 of 9 | This photo shows the scene of the explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Credit: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
2 of 9 | Thus was the site of the explosion in Beirut. (Credit: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
3 of 9 | A cloud of red smoke hangs over Beirut after the explosion that shook the city. (Credit: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
4 of 9 | The explosion was felt in various parts of the city. (Credit: JANINE HAIDAR / AFP via Getty Images)
5 out of 9 | An injured man is tended to by a firefighter near the scene of the explosion, in the port of Beirut. (Credit: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
6 out of 9 | A group of people gather near the scene of the explosion. A building was severely damaged by the explosion in a firecracker warehouse, according to the state agency NNA. (Credit: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
7 of 9 | Firefighters try to put out the blast fire in the Beirut port. (STR / AFP via Getty Images)
8 of 9 | The explosions in Beirut injured dozens of people, hit buildings, and sent tall plumes of smoke into the sky. (Credit: STR / AFP via Getty Images)
9 of 9 | A man stares in amazement at the chaotic scene after the explosion in Beirut. (Credit: (IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)
Ammonium nitrate has been implicated in deadly industrial explosions in the past, and is known to require careful handling.
“Poorly stored ammonium nitrate is known for explosions, for example in Oppau, Germany; in Galveston Bay, Texas; and most recently at West in Waco, Texas; and Tianjin in China, «Andrea Sella, professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, told the Science Media Center.
“This is a catastrophic regulatory failure because ammonium nitrate storage regulations are typically very clear. The idea that such a quantity had been left unattended for six years is a begging belief and was an accident waiting to happen. "
Perhaps the closest comparison to the Beirut explosion, in terms of scale, is an explosion in the city of Texas in 1947, which was caused by 2,300 US tons (approximately 2,087 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate. The resulting fire caused an explosion and additional fires that damaged more than 1,000 buildings and killed nearly 400 people, according to the Texas Historical Association website.So was the explosion that shook Beirut 0:25
Previous chemical-related disasters have led to better regulations for safe storage, Associate Professor Stewart Walker of the Flinders University School of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry in Adelaide, Australia told CNN; such rules mean that it tends to stay away from population centers.
"Both will be questioned in the investigation into the Beirut explosion, because they had such a large amount of ammonium nitrate that it may not have been stored properly, and in an area where there are a large number of people," he added.
CNN's Kareem Khadder, Schams Elwazer, Rob Picheta and Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.