Explosives experts say 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate removed from a vessel impounded in 2013 and abandoned by its Russian owner was long considered dangerous before a welding accident caused it to explode.

The series of events that led to Tuesday’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut appears to have begun in late 2013, when technical problems forced a cargo ship to make an unscheduled stop in the city’s port.

Lebanon’s port authorities were shocked when they boarded the vessel to inspect it. Not only was the merchant vessel Rhosus, flying a Moldovan flag, unfit to continue on its journey – it was carrying an astonishing 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in its hold.

That ammonium nitrate – which was eventually taken off the ship and stored in a warehouse at the port – is believed to have been responsible for Tuesday’s massive blast, which killed at least 135 people and injured thousands of others. The death toll is expected to rise further as rescue workers continue to search through the rubble of Beirut’s devastated port district, where the explosion left little standing.

Across the city, an estimated 300,000 people were made homeless by the disaster.

An investigation launched by the Lebanese government has quickly focused on criminal negligence as the likely cause of the disaster. On Wednesday, the cabinet ordered that all port-authority officials involved in storage and security be placed under immediate house arrest.

In a speech, President Michel Aoun said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”

The government also declared a two-week state of emergency on Wednesday, effectively giving the country’s military any powers it deems necessary to deal with the disaster.

Ammonium nitrate, which is most commonly used as fertilizer, can become highly explosive when mixed with other specific substances, including fuel oil. Videos of the Beirut explosion show a fire at a port warehouse and a smaller explosion just before the blast, which sent an orange-tinged mushroom cloud high into the sky, and caused injuries and damage across much of the densely populated Lebanese capital.

The owner of the Rhosus was a Russian national, Igor Grechushkin, whose last known address was Cyprus. He did not answer calls to his mobile phone on Wednesday. His LinkedIn page appeared to have been deleted.

While it was Rhosus that brought the ammonium nitrate into Beirut, the bigger question is why such combustible material was still sitting unattended in the heart of the city more than six years later.

Imad Salamey, an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Lebanese American University, said there was a culture of corruption at Beirut’s port, with officials paid to look the other way and not ask questions, as armed factions – including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia that dominates Lebanese politics – moved illicit materials in and out of the city.

“The port has for some time now been run by warlords. These groups operate in a mafia-istic way, in the sense that they don’t pay attention to civilian safety,” Prof. Salamey said. “Their main concern is to benefit their warlords and their sponsors in foreign states.”

Several foreign governments said they were sending rescue teams to help with the treatment of victims and the search for survivors. Lebanon’s health care system was already struggling to cope with a resurgent COVID-19 outbreak, and suffering from shortages of medicine and equipment, before the explosion.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would soon fly to Beirut along with a team of French rescue workers. Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar were among the other countries that said they were dispatching help.

Ottawa has set up a hotline for any Canadians in Lebanon in need of assistance. More than 11,000 Canadian citizens are registered with the Canadian government in the country. “We stand with the people of Lebanon and the diaspora during this difficult time and we are ready to assist however we can,” Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne wrote Tuesday on his Twitter account.

Shipping records show the Rhosus began its fateful journey at the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Georgia, on Sept. 23, 2013. The intended destination for its cargo was Mozambique, but the ship only made it as far as Beirut, where it was impounded on Nov. 21, 2013.

“Upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the Master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo. The vessel quickly ran out of stores, bunker and provisions,” reads a note posted online by Baroudi & Associates, a Lebanese law firm that, acting on behalf of “various” unnamed creditors, obtained an order to have the ship arrested.

The ship’s captain (or master) and the unfortunate crew members – three Ukrainian nationals and one Russian – were forced to remain on board the Rhosus to keep the ship and its volatile cargo afloat. They became causes célebre in their native Ukraine, where local media regularly reported on the “hostages” who were trapped on board a derelict ship in the port of Beirut.

“The owner, Igor Grechushkin, actually abandoned the ship and the remaining crew,” the ship’s captain, Boris Prokoshev, said in a June, 2014, statement that he gave, while still aboard the Rhosus, to a Ukrainian legal-aid organization.

“He says that he went bankrupt. I don’t believe him, but that doesn’t matter. The fact is that he abandoned the ship and the crew, just like he abandoned his cargo, ammonium nitrate, which is on the ship.”

Finally, almost exactly a year after the ship was first detained, a Lebanese judge allowed the seamen to leave the ship and return home. “Emphasis was placed on the imminent danger the crew was facing given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo still stored in ship’s holds,” reads the account by Baroudi & Associates. The firm said it took on the sailors’ case on compassionate grounds.

The lawyers’ note, published in a shipping industry journal called The Arrest News, which tracks ships that have been impounded, ends on an ominous note. “Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses. The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

Six years later, that same cargo was still in Hangar 12 at Beirut’s port. It’s a situation that explosives experts have referred to as a “ticking time bomb.”

“Storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate is dangerous because of its volatile nature. It must be kept separate from sources of heat and ignition, and with such a large quantity of it in one place, the risks should have been obvious,” said David Videcette, a former British counterterrorism detective.

“Given the length of time and the concentration of other flammable materials coming in and out of Beirut’s main port, this sort of accident seems inevitable after the length of time it’s been there,” he said.

Hassan Koraytem, the general manager of the Beirut Port Authority, said the ammonium nitrate was been stored in the warehouse because of a court order. Mr. Koraytem said his office had repeatedly asked for the shipment to be removed, but “nothing happened.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Mr. Koraytem was among the officials placed under house arrest on Wednesday.

The Lebanese government has said the explosion appeared to have occurred during welding work at Hangar 12.

The blast devastated the port district, damaging food-storage facilities and raising questions about if and when the port could resume its key function of receiving shipments food and other supplies. If the port is disabled for a prolonged period, it could be a devastating blow to Lebanon’s import-reliant economy, which was already in a dangerous free fall, with food prices skyrocketing and the country’s currency rapidly devaluing.

The country is also bracing for an international tribunal based in The Hague to announce a potentially incendiary verdict in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Four members of Hezbollah are accused of murdering Mr. Hariri, a leading Sunni figure, with a massive car bomb that shook the centre of Beirut in 2005.

That verdict, which was due Friday, has now been postponed until Aug. 18. In a statement, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said it had made the decision “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion that shook Beirut” and to honour the government’s call for three days of public mourning.

Prof. Salamey said the explosion had contributed to growing fear and anger in the country. “The population is very angry at the political establishment. It’s holding primarily the President and the Prime Minister, and to some extent Hezbollah, responsible for the overall deterioration of conditions in the country – the deep-rooted corruption and negligence.”

The Globe and Mail, August 5, 2020