On Tuesday, August 4, a warehouse in the crowded downtown port
area of Beirut, Lebanon caught fire.
Lebanon has been going through hard times lately: COVID-19, hyperinflation, and general
government dysfunction. Ordinarily, a warehouse fire would not be cause for
concern. But this fire was different,
because 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate was stored in the warehouse as
a result of a combination of business misjudgment, bureaucratic incompetence,
There are YouTube videos that show what happened next. In one mobile-phone clip shot from a few
miles away, an orange-colored smoke cloud towers above the downtown area. Suddenly a black ball with cracks of yellow balloons
outward at unbelievable speed, followed by a larger whitish spray of water that
covers many city blocks. And then the shockwave
hits and the phone is apparenly knocked out of the witness’s hand.
By the latest counting available at this writing (Sunday),
at least 157 people were killed, over 5,000 were injured, and up to 300,000
people have been rendered homeless by the blast, which leveled almost all the
buildings in the immediate vicinity and broke windows for a radius of many kilometers.
How did that much ammonium nitrate end up in the middle of
the capital city of Lebanon? By a series
of mishaps and oversights that, taken individually, were fairly minor. But the end effect was disastrous.
A BBC article has straightened out the tangled tale. In September of 2013, the Moldovan-flagged
cargo ship MV Rhosus set sail from Batumi, a city on the eastern coast of the
Black Sea, to deliver ammonium nitrate to an explosives factory in Mozambique. After traveling through the Bosporous Strait
and docking in Greece for about a month, the ship headed across the Mediterranean
for the Suez Canal, which would take it to the eastern coast of Africa.
But somewhere in the Mediterranean, something went
wrong. One source said that the ship had
“technical problems,” but the Russian captain, a Mr. Prokoshev, said
that the ship’s owner had a cash shortfall, so in order to get enough money to
pay for the Suez Canal passage fee, he ordered the captain to pick up a load of
heavy machinery in Beirut. In any event,
the MV Rhosus ended up docking unexpectedly in Beirut in November of 2013. According to the captain, the machinery was
too heavy to load, and the owner didn’t have enough money to pay the Beirut port
fees and a fine. This is why the
Lebanese port authorities impounded the ship and its cargo.
To make matters worse, when presented with this situation,
the owners of the ship and its cargo abandoned it to creditors and the port authorities,
leaving them with 2,750 tons of dangerous ammonium nitrate and a crew that
began running low on food and supplies.
Beirut has an official called the Judge of Urgent Matters,
and when the crew petitioned this entity for permission to leave the ship and
go back to their various homes, the judge eventually relented. In early 2014, port authorities transferred
the bagged ammonium nitrate from the abandoned ship to a warehouse near a grain
elevator in the port to await “auctioning and/or proper
No actual crime had been committed, but by a series of
messups, the Port of Beirut became the unwilling owner of a warehouse full of
Lower-level officials seemed to know the tremendous hazard
that this stuff presented, and the BBC discovered messages from customs
officials pleading with the Judge of Urgent Matters to do something about the confiscated
explosives. It appears they tried to get
action at least six times in the next three years. One can question the appropriateness of the
judge’s title by the fact that the stuff sat there all the way from 2014 until
last Tuesday. Reportedly, the Public
Works MInister Michel Najjar was talking about the stuff with the port manager
as recently as late July, but again, nothing was done.
Up until the 1970s, Lebanon was one of the more competently
run countries in the Middle East. But
things have deteriorated since then, and the explosion last week was the end
product of a bureaucratic failure of historic proportions.
As the ship’s captain commented to an interviewer, the best
thing that could have happened is if the port had paid the ship’s owner to take
the ship and its cargo away as soon as they could. It would have cost maybe $200,000, but the
port authorities would have been spared having to deal with the hot potato of
that much ammonium nitrate.
That didn’t happen.
What the situation needed was a person with both the authority and the
courage to get rid of the ammonium nitrate, which could have been sold or even
donated as fertilizer, which is its other common use besides that of an
explosive. But that would have gone
against what may be an all-too-common tendency in some government
organizations, which is to deal with the apparently urgent over the truly important
but not apparently urgent matters at hand.
One important function of governments is to act as a kind of
social immune system, defending the body politic from potential and actual
threats that are constantly attacking it.
Beirut’s political immune system has been weakened by strife, the war in
Syria, economic dislocations, and other factors to the point that a very basic
“immune response” of getting what amounted to a time bomb out of the
city center failed. We hope that the
citizens of Beirut and Lebanon will now stand a better chance of getting what
they’ve been asking for for years: more
competence in government. But governments
everywhere, even the U. S., can learn from this tragedy that incompetence can
have a heavy price.
BBC report on how the ammonium nitrate got to Beiruit is at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53683082. I also referred to a report by the Indian
Express at https://indianexpress.com/article/world/lebanon-beirut-explosion-death-toll-france-germany-port-6542835/
and Wikipedia articles on Beirut and Lebanon.