The blast near the port in the Lebanese capital sent up a huge mushroom cloud-shaped shockwave, flipping cars and damaging distant buildings. It was felt as far as Cyprus, hundreds of miles away.
At least 25 people were killed in the blast and over 2,500 people have been wounded, Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters.
Footage from the scene captured the injured staggering through streets in the capital; and ambulances, cars and military vehicles packed with the wounded. One eyewitness described the scenes as “like an apocalypse.”
There were conflicting reports on what caused the explosion, which was initially blamed on a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port, according to NNA. The director of the general security directorate later said the blast was caused by confiscated “high explosive materials,” but did not provide further details.
A red cloud hung over the city in the wake of the explosion as firefighting teams rushed to the scene to try to put out the fire. At least 10 firefighters were missing, according to the city’s governor Marwan Abboud, who said the scene reminded him of “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“In my life I haven’t seen destruction on this scale,” Abboud said. “This is a national catastrophe.”
The blast comes at a tense time in Lebanon. On Friday a UN-backed panel is expected to issue a verdict on the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a move many fear will stoke sectarian tensions. The country is also in the midst of an economic meltdown, with ballooning unemployment, a tanking currency and poverty rates soaring above 50%.
Chaotic scenes filled Beirut’s hospitals Tuesday as doctors conducted triage on dozens of wounded people. Some had broken limbs, others had been showered with shards of glass. Some patients were unconscious.
Emergency wards are inundated with the injured. One of Beirut’s major hospitals, Hotel Dieu, received around 400 injured patients, an employee told CNN.
The American University of Beirut Medical Center has been unable to receive more patients, partly due to blast damage, according to state media.
The Secretary-General of the Kataeb political Party, Nazar Najarian, died after being injured in the explosion, Lebanese state media NNA reported. He was in his office when the explosion happened.
The blast damaged buildings across the city, including the official residence of Lebanon’s president, the headquarters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and CNN’s bureau in downtown Beirut. Homes as far as 10 kilometers away were damaged, according to witnesses.
One Beirut resident who was several kilometers away from the site of the blast said her windows had been shattered by the explosion. “What I felt was that it was an earthquake,” Rania Masri told CNN.
“The apartment shook horizontally and all of a sudden it felt like an explosion and the windows and doors burst open. The glass just broke. So many homes were damaged or destroyed.”
“You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged, it is like an apocalypse,” said Bachar Ghattas, another eyewitness.
“It is very, very frightening what is happening right now, and people are freaking out. The emergency services are overwhelmed,” Ghattas told CNN. “Beirut port is totally destroyed.”
World leaders soon expressed their condolences amid the unfolding tragedy.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi called his Lebanese counterpart Charbel Wahbeh to say that”Jordanians stand in support with Lebanon and its Lebanese brothers and are ready to offer any help they need,” he said in a tweet.
“My thoughts are with the people of #Lebanon and with the families of the victims of the tragic #BeirutBlast,” President of the European Council Charles Michel said in a tweet. “The EU stands ready to provide assistance and support.”
The United States Ambassador in Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, expressed “heartfelt sympathies” to the victims and their families after “having witnessed the horrific explosions at the Port,” she said in a statement shared on Twitter.
“We mourn each loss from this terrible tragedy alongside the Lebanese people,” the US Ambassador added.
CNN’s Schams Elwazer, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Alessandra Massi, Nada AlTaher and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.