BEIRUT — A "colossal" explosion that rocked the port area of Lebanon's capital Tuesday, killing dozens of people and injuring thousands more, happened at a warehouse where tons of ammonium nitrate were being stored, the prime minister said.
"I will not rest until we find the person responsible for what happened, to hold him accountable and impose the most severe penalties," Prime Minister Hassan Diab said.
Diab said it was "unacceptable" that a shipment of ammonium nitrate estimated at 2,750 tons had been in warehouse for six years without "preventive measures" to protect it. The chemical compound, which is commercially available, is used widely in fertilizers and explosives.
It wasn't clear what ignited the shipment, but at least 4,000 people were injured and 100 others were killed, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, George Kettana, told Lebanese broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday. The number of casualties could rise — some of the injuries are serious and some people are still trapped under rubble, Kettana said.
Images and videos on social media appear to show large plumes of smoke and damaged buildings.
The head of Lebanon's general security agency, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who toured the Beirut port to inspect the damage, said: "It is not possible to pre-empt investigations and say that there was a terrorist act."
Speaking during a coronavirus task force briefing Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the explosion looked "like a terrible attack," although he offered no evidence and said later that the conclusion was based on the presumptions of U.S. generals.
"This was not a, some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event," Trump said.
Lebanon's National News Agency reported that wheat was being stored in a nearby warehouse. Firetrucks rushed to the scene, and evacuation operations were underway, it said. Military and security personnel were also on the scene to ease traffic to make way for emergency vehicles.
The Lebanese Red Cross confirmed on Twitter that it had more than 30 teams, including ambulances, responding to the blast and had put out an urgent call for blood donations.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Twitter that the Public Health Ministry would meet the expenses of treating the wounded and that the government would provide shelter and support to displaced families whose properties were damaged.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian offered condolences and said France was ready to assist its former colony.
'Lots of destruction'
Video from the Beirut offices of the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, appears to show fallen-in parts of the roof, blown-out windows and damaged furniture, indicating the strength of the blast. Hours later, the U.S. Embassy warned of toxic gases and told people to stay indoors and wear masks.
An NBC News journalist in the city felt the explosion from her apartment, more than a kilometer from the port, as her windows and doors were blown out, filling the stairwell with thick dust as residents dashed to exit the building.
Dozens of residents people, some covered in blood, scrambled to their cars to leave the area for the safety of nearby mountains.
"It's like Hiroshima," Beirut Mayor Jamal Itani told reporters. "There is lots of destruction, and the wounded are lying in the streets."
Another NBC News journalist said the blast was "colossal" and that it could be felt miles away as it rippled through the capital, leaving a trail of destruction behind.
In an interview, Aly Sleem, 34, who was driving in a neighborhood near the explosion, said he heard what sounded like two blasts.
"The second one was really horrible," he said. "You couldn't even breathe."
A journalist who recorded the secondary explosion, Ahmad Yassine, 30, captured what appeared to be a mushroom cloud rising from the building.
Yassine was having lunch a few kilometers away at the time, and in a video he tweeted, a loud blast followed by screams can be heard moments after the cloud dissipates.
At first, Yassine said in an interview, he didn't know whether he was still breathing.
"Later on, I saw people running, destruction, glass everywhere," he said.
After the sun set, parts of the city remained without power, said Joelle Bassoul, a regional content manager for Amnesty International.
"It's completely dark behind me," she said. "It's completely silent."
Bassoul, a former journalist who covered the country's civil war from 1975 to 2000, said the "sheer scale of fear and panic" she saw in the streets reminded of her that period.
"It's just scenes of devastation tonight," she said.
Officials still inspecting the site
The National News Agency reported that Diab, the prime minister, and other ministers were inspecting damage at the site.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it wasn't clear whether any Americans were killed or injured.
"Having witnessed the horrific explosions at the Port this evening, our heartfelt sympathies go out to the victims and their families," U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea said in a statement. "We mourn each loss from this terrible tragedy alongside the Lebanese people."
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told a local television channel that it was too early to speculate on the cause and that there was no reason to believe the explosion was not an accident.
Blast comes as Lebanon contends with other crises
Lebanon is in the midst of a number of social and political crises.
The country is bracing for a U.N.-backed court to deliver a verdict Friday on the death of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister who was killed by a truck bomb in 2005, sending the country's fragile political system into turmoil.
It is also grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and a spiraling economic crisis, the most severe in its modern history, that has pushed many Lebanese people to protest in the streets this year as unemployment has soared.
Abbie Cheeseman reported from Beirut, Adela Suliman and Matthew Mulligan reported from London, and Tim Stelloh reported from California.