Ship bankruptcy left port nursing time bomb
The timer started ticking seven years ago, when Igor Grechushkin, the Russian owner of the Rhosus ship carrying the deadly cargo from Georgia to Mozambique, declared bankruptcy on an unscheduled stop in Beirut.
A massive 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate — a bomb equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale — was transferred from the ship to a warehouse in the port in 2014. Authorities asked for judicial assistance in selling it on, and sent several letters asking for action. One source said an inspection team warned six months ago it could “blow up all of Beirut” if not removed.
Ammonium nitrate, used in farming as a powerful fertiliser, was the explosive of choice for the IRA. The most potent of its blasts was just one five-thousandth of the size of the Beirut blast.
It can be safely stored. It is stable, under the right conditions. There are international protocols on how much can be held, where, and under what security precautions. But leaving it dumped in one place and in such quantity was always likely to end badly, said Stewart Walker, a professor in chemistry at Flinders University in
Philip Ingram, an explosives expert and former military intelligence officer, said: “It can degrade over time, all the more so if it is stored badly”
All it needs then is an appropriate spark. This came when a welder was making repairs to the warehouse. It is suspected the building also contained fireworks.
Video footage shows a fire with white smoke. Then, a major blast, orange and brown, consistent with nitrous dioxide, given off when ammonium nitrate explodes. Next a massive white mushroom cloud, not unlike Hiroshima. Ingram says it is water condensation. And then, the explosion’s supersonic waves spread out across the city. He explained: “There are two effects: blowing and sucking. The over-pressure wave blows everything over in its way, and then there’s a big dip in pressure. That sucks everything back in.”
Floors rise with the first wave and fall on the under-pressure, explaining why high rise buildings can collapse. “As the overpressure wave passes over, the individual would feel the air being sucked from his lungs,” Ingram said. “If very close, their organs could explode.”