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The Beirut explosion aftermath in photos

BEIRUT: The blasts came within seconds of each other.

First, an explosion in Beirut's port, possibly from a fireworks warehouse, sent a plume of smoke billowing over the capital skyline early Tuesday evening.

Then a much larger explosion from a building nearby shot a chrysanthemum of orange and red smoke into the air followed by a massive shock wave of whitish dust and debris that rose hundreds of feet and spread out for blocks.

The seaside capital rocked like an earthquake. Cars tumbled upside down and bricks rained down from apartment buildings. Glass flew out of windows kilometres away and roofs collapsed.

Citizens ride their scooters and motorcycles pass in front of a house that was destroyed .

Citizens ride their scooters and motorcycles pass in front of a house that was destroyed .Credit:AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The wounded stumbled through debris-choked streets to hospitals, only to be turned away in some cases because the hospitals, already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, were overwhelmed.

By Wednesday morning, at least 100 people were dead and 4000 injured in the worst carnage to hit the city in more than a decade. For many of Lebanon's 5.2 million people, the images that ricocheted through social media recalled the scenes of urban destruction from the long-troubled country's decades of war.

It was unclear exactly what caused the explosions, but Prime Minister Hassan Diab said an estimated 2750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, commonly used in fertiliser and bombs, had been stored in a depot at the port for six years.

"As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it," Diab said.

A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut on Wednesday.

A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut on Wednesday. Credit:AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Major general Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon's general security service, told the state-run news agency that "highly explosive materials" had been seized by the government years ago and were stored near the blast site. Although the thought of an attack was in the front of everyone's mind, he warned against getting "ahead of the investigation" and speculating about a terrorist act.

In a televised statement, Diab hinted that neglect had led to the blast and said the government would hold those responsible to account.

"Facts on this dangerous depot, which has existed since 2014 or the past six years, will be announced," Diab said. "Those responsible will pay a price for this catastrophe."

Diab said Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, speaking on television, called it "a national catastrophe" and burst into tears.

At a briefing in Washington, US President Donald Trump suggested the explosion was the result of an attack. He said he consulted with military generals and that "they seem to think it's an attack, a bomb of some kind."

However, a senior US official said, "Everything I'm seeing thus far points to a tragic accident."

A man stands in a damaged apartment as he looks out at the scene of a massive explosion.

A man stands in a damaged apartment as he looks out at the scene of a massive explosion.Credit:(AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The explosion was the latest in a string of events in recent months that have plunged Lebanon, a sectarian-based democracy with a long history of civil strife, into simultaneous political and economic crises.

Since last fall, waves of protests calling for the ouster of the country's political class for decades of mismanagement and corruption have shut down cities and towns across the country, and a severe financial crisis has eroded the value of the Lebanese pound by 80%, plunging many Lebanese into poverty.

More recently, the number of new coronavirus cases has begun to rise quickly, raising fears that a new government-imposed lockdown could further damage the economy. Many of the country's hospitals were already on the verge of capacity.

The blasts emanated from Beirut's port but were felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 250km [180 miles] to the west. They ravaged Beirut's downtown business district, a nearby waterfront full of restaurants and nightclubs, and a number of crowded residential neighbourhoods in the city's eastern and predominantly Christian half.

Nearly all the windows along one popular commercial strip had been blown out and the street was littered with glass, rubble and cars that had slammed into each other after the blast.

A woman takes pictures by her mobile phone for a damaged church.

A woman takes pictures by her mobile phone for a damaged church.Credit:AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Abbas Saleh, a 28-year-old driver, was in his car when he saw a flash and heard a boom, and his windshield shattered.

"You would never think it was an explosion," he said. "More like missiles coming down on us."

He ran out of his car and began helping Red Cross workers carry the dead and wounded.

All around, families struggled to get wounded relatives out of their buildings so they could be piled into ambulances or onto the backs of motor scooters. The Lebanese Red Cross said that every available ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon was dispatched to Beirut, but so many roads had been rendered impassible that many of the wounded had to walk to the hospital themselves.

Space, medics and supplies were lacking. Hospitals in the hardest-hit areas were heavily damaged, with at least one shutting down altogether and others treating bleeding patients in their parking lots.

St. George Hospital in central Beirut, one of the city's biggest, was so severely damaged that it had to send patients elsewhere.

"My friends, my friends," Dr. Joseph Haddad, the hospital's director of intensive care, said in a phone call.

"This is Joseph Haddad calling you from St. George Hospital. There is no St. George Hospital anymore. It's fallen, it's on the floor," Haddad says, as broken glass is heard crackling underfoot. "It's all destroyed. All of it. Pray to God, pray to God."

A damaged hospital is seen after a massive explosion.

A damaged hospital is seen after a massive explosion.Credit:AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

At Bikhazi Medical Group hospital in the centre of Beirut, wounded patients streamed into a damaged hospital.

"The door to the entrance of the hospital is completely shattered," said Rima Azar, the hospital director and co-owner. "The full ceiling fell on some patients in some rooms. The pressure was horrific. We heard a boom, then everything was shaking. There was a second blow that was super loud. Everything was falling from desks, from shelves."

The 60-bed hospital treated 500 patients in the hours after the blast, she said.

Another hospital farther out received so many patients that medics lined them on the floor and in hallways. Those with non-life-threatening injuries had them cleaned and stapled shut before being sent on their way.

It was unclear how the disaster would affect the country's tense political situation. Many Lebanese are already fed up with a political class they feel has looted the country for years, leaving it virtually bankrupt and with a collapsing currency. Greater anger would likely follow should it turn out that the blast was yet another example of governmental neglect.

A driver wearing a protective face mask drives a badly damaged Porsche SE luxury automobile in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday.

A driver wearing a protective face mask drives a badly damaged Porsche SE luxury automobile in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday.Credit:Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg

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