What video analysis shows about the Beirut explosion

What video analysis shows about the Beirut explosion

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Lebanon continues to sift through the wreckage inflicted by a massive explosion that leveled Beirut on Tuesday. At least 150 people were killed, more than 5,000 injured and an estimated 300,000 people have lost their homes.

The detonation of an estimated 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer and bombmaking ingredient, engulfed the city. The material had been stored inside a Beirut port warehouse since 2014, when it was seized by customs authorities, according to Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

Drawing on available video, photographs and satellite imagery of the explosion, The Washington Post analyzed the moments that led up to the devastating blast and the aftermath. The gathered materials were shared with explosive experts, engineers, chemists and physicians to better understand the explosion and the impact of its destructive shock waves.

Before the explosion, multiple videos show a plume of mostly white smoke rising from the port facility near the area where the ammonium nitrate was reportedly being stored by Lebanese authorities. In a video circulated on social media, firefighters are seen standing outside a burning warehouse. Marwan Abboud, the governor of Beirut, said that 10 firefighters who were at the scene were killed.

Then, a series of orange flashes cut through the smoke. Several explosive experts said the flashes are the result of smaller explosions at the base of the fire, indicating the presence of explosive materials like ammunition or fireworks. It is still unclear what caused the initial spark.

The high temperatures caused by the fire and the large quantities of ammonium nitrate packed within a confined space created the conditions necessary for a catastrophic explosion capable of leveling buildings, according to Van Romero, an explosives expert at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

“This was a perfect storm,” he told The Post.

At around 6:08 p.m. local time, a bright, red flash marks the detonation of the ammonium nitrate, according to several explosive experts who reviewed videos of the incident for The Post. Rapidly expanding gases created by the detonation produce a supersonic shock wave capable of traveling at speeds of up to 2,000 meters per second.

The explosive burst of the shock wave creates a wall of highly pressurized air near the blast site. It is capable of causing severe bodily damage, such as the disruption of vital organs, collapsed lungs, burst eardrums and even death, according to Anthony Bull, the director of the Center for Blast Studies at Imperial College London who studies the effects of explosions on the human body.

As the explosion grows, the initial shock wave condenses water in the atmosphere to create a large expanding hemispherical cloud that quickly dissipates as it passes. The pressure wave generates a massive cloud of debris that heaves a wall of deadly projectiles commonly referred to as missiles by experts. The shattered masonry and glass fragments inside the cloud cause even more catastrophic destruction and injuries.

“The majority of fatalities are likely to have been caused by missiles and or building collapse,” U.K.-based explosive expert and chemical engineer Tony Ennis told The Post in an email. “Those nearest to the blast are likely to have been killed by a combination of blast and thermal radiation,” he wrote.

Hotel manager Tony Dagher filmed the devastating effects of the explosion as it tore through the restaurant of the Saint Georges Hotel over a mile away from the blast site. Dagher told The Post he struggled for air and was overwhelmed by shortness of breath after he was knocked to the ground by the explosion — a likely result of the shock wave compressing his lungs, according to experts that study the effects of explosive blasts on the human body.

The explosion of the nearly 3,000 metric tons of the highly explosive chemical compound then releases a massive plume of a reddish-hued gas into the atmosphere visible for miles, according to videos and eyewitness accounts.

The color of the smoke indicates the presence of nitrogen oxides, a known product of an ammonium nitrate explosion, according to Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “That is such a distinctive color for a chemist,” said Rofer, who reviewed several videos of the explosion for The Post.

The devastation in the densely populated city was cataclysmic. The shock wave collapsed buildings, tore through apartment blocks and launched debris hundreds of feet away from the blast site. Some people were trapped underneath the rubble while local hospitals, already overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, struggled to take in the thousands injured by blast debris.

“The energy from the blast wind that follows the high-pressure wave doesn’t just accelerate fragments … it produces crush injuries due to buildings collapsing,” Bull told The Post.

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Satellite image source: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

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Satellite image source: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

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Satellite image source: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

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Satellite image source: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

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Satellite image source: ©2020 Maxar Technologies

An analysis by Ennis taking into account the amount of ammonium nitrate reportedly housed inside the warehouse facility estimates the blast would be equivalent to the explosion of up to 2.4 million pounds of TNT.

“This was an entirely avoidable tragedy. The explosive properties of ammonium nitrate have been well known for many years and are well understood as are the proper precautions for safe storage,” he said.

Laris Karklis contributed to this report.

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