Lebanon is in mourning and surveying the damage to its capital after the massive explosion ripped through the city’s port and surrounding areas on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring 4,000 with many feared to be still trapped under rubble.
The likely cause of the huge blast in Beirut on Tuesday appears to have been the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, said 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded after lying unsecured in a warehouse for six years, tallying with reports that a ship carrying a similar quantity of the chemical had unloaded its cargo at the port in 2013. It remains unclear what caused the chemical to ignite.
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.
It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense.
However, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve. “You need extreme circumstances to set off an explosion,” a chemical expert says.
While ammonium nitrate can in fact put out a fire, if the chemical itself is contaminated, for example with oil, it becomes highly explosive.
In a country already reeling from an economic crisis, the full scale of the calamity became apparent as the city woke on Wednesday morning, with rescue teams searching through the debris of ruined neighbourhoods for the missing, and hospitals buckling under the weight of thousands of casualties.
The correspondent of „The Guardian“ in Moscow, Andrew Roth, wrote some gripping details on the ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut:
Little is known about the Russian owner of the Rhosus, the cargo ship impounded in Beirut in 2014, whose captain had referred to its freight of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser as a “floating bomb”.
That ammonium nitrate is believed to have fuelled the devastating explosion that has left more than 100 dead in Beirut.
Former crew members said the ship was owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian national believed to be living in Cyprus, where he holds either citizenship or residency. Grechushkin, a native of the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk, is reported to have managed Teto Shipping, which owned the Rhosus.
The ship arrived in Beirut in 2013 while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique. It was prevented from leaving the Beirut port in 2014 over an unspecified dispute, either because the ship was deemed not seaworthy or because the owner had failed to pay the necessary fees to the port.
It was then that Grechushkin is said to have walked away from the ship, refusing to answer calls or negotiate with the port authorities for the release of his sailors.
In complaints to the press in 2014, former crew members said they had been “abandoned” in Beirut and had not been paid their wages for nearly a year. “The owner of the ship has virtually abandoned the ship and its crew,” wrote the ship’s former captain. “Salaries are not paid, supplies are not purchased. The shipowner has refused the cargo.”
A deleted LinkedIn profile lists Grechushkin as living in Cyprus and as working as a manager at Unimar Service Ltd. Calls to a company with a similar name and profile, Unimar Safety Services and Equipment, on Wednesday were not answered. Calls to a number for Grechushkin listed by the aggrieved crew members also went unanswered.
The letter, which was sent to Russian journalists by the Rhosus’s former captain in 2014, also complained about being “held hostage” onboard the ship. The Beirut authorities “don’t want an abandoned ship at port, especially with a cargo of explosives, which is what ammonium nitrate is. That is, this is a floating bomb, and the crew is a hostage aboard this bomb.”
The mostly Ukrainian crew were held onboard the ship for nearly a year before they were released. The ammonium nitrate was confiscated and held at the port in a warehouse.
The Russian television station Ren TV published a photograph on Wednesday of a man it said was Grechushkin in tight-fitting jeans and sunglasses sitting astride a motorcycle. The television station did not indicate the source of the photograph.