What Caused Beirut Blasts? Terror Strike or Blaze at Ammonium Nitrate Warehouse?

While there is a mystery over who or what caused the blasts, the chemical behind the deadly explosions has been identified.

The capital city of Lebanon, Beirut, was rocked by a massive bomb blast on Tuesday evening. The magnitude of the blast was captured on various videos that have been shared widely on social media. There were actually two blasts. Prior to the massive explosion which shook Beirut to the core, a smaller blast had taken place in the same area.

As of now, the exact reason why this blast took place hasn't been determined. Most likely, it was the lack of safety measures in effect at the warehouse which caused the detonation. However, US President Donald Trump suggested that it could be a terrorist attack as well. The Lebanese government, though, is cautioning against such surmises.

The main blast took place at 6:08 PM. The noise generated by the explosion could be heard as far as the country of Cyprus. "Those responsible will pay a price for this catastrophe. This is a promise to the martyrs and wounded people. This is a national commitment," Prime Minister of Lebanon Hassan Diab said.

Beirut blast
The main explosion in Beirut Twitter

Explosive Material

The chief substance that caused the explosion was ammonium nitrate that was stored in a very large quantity – estimated to be around 2,750 tons – at a government warehouse on the waterfront. The explosives stored had been seized over the years by the government and had been lying for six years at the warehouse.

"It isn't acceptable that a shipment of ammonium nitrate — estimated to be 2,750 tons — was in a depot for the past six years without precautionary measures being taken," PM Diab reportedly had asserted.

The two blasts were preceded by fire at another warehouse which reportedly contained fireworks. Eye-witnesses have confirmed seeing firework-like explosions minutes before the blast. Whether the main blast could have been triggered by one of these projectiles is not yet clear.

Beirut blast
The site of the blast Twitter

Other Ammonium Nitrate blasts

Ammonium Nitrate is a highly combustible chemical compound that has been the cause of deadly explosions before as well. It is used as a fertilizer which makes it widely available. Way back in 1947, a large blast caused by ammonium nitrate took place in Texas when a ship containing this compound exploded in the harbor. This caused explosions which killed 581 people.

As an offensive material for a terrorist attack also, it was used in the USA in the infamous Oklahoma City blasts of 1995. 189 people died in those blasts. But USA's bad experience with this chemical didn't end there. In 2013 also, 15 people were killed in an explosion that took place at Texas and was caused by the same material.

France too has witnessed a similar deadly explosion. An accidental blast at a chemical factory killed 31 people in Toulouse. The deadly potential of this chemical has been used by terrorist organizations like Taliban too.

Because of the Oklahoma terrorist attack, American authorities have instituted a law that requires any facility storing 2000 pounds of ammonium nitrates to receive regular inspection. Be it a deliberate act by terrorists or a result of lax security measures, the Lebanon blasts have once again revealed the need of treating this material carefully.