National Post (Latest Edition)

Rememberin­g the Beirut blast

- Colby Cosh

Here’s an example of the time-bending from which we all suffer thanks to the reality distortion virus. remember that huge accidental explosion that killed 204 people and levelled much of Beirut? When I was reminded of it by a headline the other day, I tried to think back to when this horrifying event — reminiscen­t, to Canadians, of the great halifax explosion of 1917 — had happened.

I was pretty sure it was in calendar 2020, but felt it had to be quite early in the year, perhaps January or February. This was after adjusting for my badly damaged brain calendar, because the explosion actually seems to have taken place two or three years ago. Actual date: Aug. 4, 2020.

The blast turned out to involve no great mystery once the various threads of causality were given a tug. Man-made accidents generally involve a long chain of routine occupation­al screwups; each will normally be the sort that happens often, especially in an environmen­t of corruption and institutio­nal somnolence, and which only become enormously dangerous when they form an unhappy statistica­l series, like a long roll of ones in a dice game.

But Beirut’s position near the world’s aorta of trade — the reason there is a beautiful, cosmopolit­an city there that, for all its bullet holes and political turbulence, represents the essence of civilizati­on — loaded all of the dice a little bit, in a way that would be comic if not so tragic.

Just count the number of countries that appear in the sequence leading to the accident. The arrow to the heart of Beirut turns out to have been the cargo ship MV rhosus, in transit from Georgia (the Caucasian country, not the state) to a mine in Mozambique. The rhosus was owned by a Panamanian shell company, flew the flag of Moldova and was reportedly owned by a Cypriot who had friends in hezbollah.

The ship had mechanical troubles in the Mediterran­ean and pulled into Beirut for repairs. Facing high tolls at Suez (put a check mark next to Egypt), the captain tried to take on a load of machinery that damaged the cargo bay doors. An inspection showed the vessel to be unseaworth­y. As fees ran up, the port seized the ship. Its main cargo, unfortunat­ely, was 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

All of this happened in 2014; the nitrate was offloaded and stored in the port’s Warehouse 12, a sort of oubliette for dangerous and confiscate­d cargo. The ship was damaged beyond repair, and not long after the explosion, the New york Times executed a small digital news coup by going back over satellite photos and discoverin­g that the rhosus had been allowed to sink in its emergency berth in early 2018. The hull is still underwater there, in a location that happens not to obstruct port traffic.

Lebanese customs officials, to their credit, absolutely did not forget the frightenin­g presence of a vast quantity of the stuff that Timothy Mcveigh had used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Between the summer of 2014 and 2017, border agents sent a long series of unanswered letters to the judges who had confiscate­d the cargo. They begged to be allowed to sell the ammonium nitrate or give it to the Lebanese army.

Instead, it sat there until some doomed welders inadverten­tly started a fire in Warehouse 12 on that fatal day, which is one of the many things in this chain of events that ought to be impossible in a well-managed port facility. Another is that 10 firefighte­rs were sent speeding to the scene, not knowing the contents of the warehouse. On arrival, they reported that the fire was making a “crazy,” unfamiliar sound. All were obliterate­d.

The standing of the Beirut event amongst the world’s largest accidental explosions has turned out to be more or less exactly what guesswork suggested in the hours following the spread of the news. The explosion, considered to be the equivalent of about a kiloton of TNT going off, was at most about one-third the strength of the 1917 halifax blast. halifax remains the unchalleng­ed titleholde­r.

But like most of the very greatest accidental explosions in history, the halifax disaster was an incident of war essentiall­y involving a premature detonation of ammunition. Among purely industrial accidents, the greatest ever in terms of pure energy release remains the BASF Oppau explosion of 1921 in Ludwigshaf­en, Germany, which killed 560 people.

Oppau happened because BASF was storing ammonium nitrate in loose form and using dynamite to break up the pile when an order came in. The crater remains as a reminder that German engineerin­g has not always lived up to its reputation.

Beirut does not come to the level of Oppau, but is on par with the Texas City, Texas, disaster of 1947, when cargo closely matching the contents of Warehouse 12 caught fire aboard the ship SS Grandcamp and annihilate­d a dockside factory town.

We may never abolish war, and ammonium nitrate will always remain available (in tightly limited amounts) at every big feed store and garden centre in the universe, but we can hope the Beirut tragedy is the last of its kind.

was at most about one-third the strength of the 1917 halifax blast.

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