The Explosion that Silenced Beirut

By Malak El Kassamani

Picture taken from Middle East Eye.

BEIRUT, August 4, just another ordinary Tuesday—the second most dreaded day of the week after Mondays. Most people are not fond of Tuesdays because it reminds them of how many more days they have to work before they could take a break on the weekend, but on August 4, Tuesday became a dreadful day of the week for every single person in Lebanon. Tuesday was no longer a reminder of how much longer one must wait for the weekend, but a reminder of how much longer one must wait for Lebanon to offer its children stability and security, and most importantly how much longer one must wait for Lebanon to become a place where dreams are made and not shattered. 

As we were stuck in the midst of Beirut’s heavy traffic, waiting patiently for our turn to cross the bridge, my friend and I both had our heads rested against the window feeling the vibrations from the ground below us on the sides of our heads. Listening to the radio and trying to avoid making small talk with the taxi driver we were both silent, lost in our own thoughts, when suddenly we found ourselves staring at each other with fearful eyes, still silent, but now not by choice. We could not speak, we could not understand, were we dreaming? I wish we were dreaming. When we finally had the courage to look away from each other and out the window we saw geysers of ash soaring up to the sky, twisting, rising and changing its shape and colors from black to orange-red, slowly erasing every shade of blue from the sky. The taxi driver looked at us and casually told us “don’t worry it is probably a building on fire or maybe it is  a massive car accident”. Before he could finish his sentence, shockwaves tore through Beirut’s Port along with every building I was gazing at, turning what was once Paris of the Middle East into the land of the dead. The sounds of the explosion, the cracked glass, the cries of people were muffled by the slow buzzing sound in my ear. The massive explosion in Beirut’s port, as loud as it was, ironically created a soundless noise in the city, and to this day Beirut is quiet. People were indeed crying, buildings were shattering, glass was smashing on the ground, but who heard it? No one. This is Lebanon, a place where the loudest noise is made but no one is listening, no one cares, and the reoccurring theme is silence. 

When I finally got home that day I ran to my room and decided to confide in the only thing that begs to hear me—the journal on my nightstand. In a silenced Beirut, I was making noise in my bedroom, noise on paper. I started writing, reflecting on everything I learned as a chemistry student at AUB. 

Ammonium nitrate improperly stored. That was not the only cause of the explosion. Huge containers were scattered around the port by the powerful force of the blast. When samples were taken around the area that got affected the most, many different chemicals dissipated in the air and on the ground; the two main destructive components were picric acid and hydrofluoric acid. German aids found many “unknown” corrosive substances including the two acids that were poorly stored in open spaces and carelessly used at the port. Chemicals, fuel and many other objects are transported and transshipped at the port. During this transit phase, many mistakes can happen when unloading and loading chemicals. Workers spill and become careless because they don’t recognize what they are dealing with. Exploiting and misusing storage procedures for corrosive and poisonous acids suffocated this country.

Traces of hydrogen fluoride (HF) and picric acid were revealed at the port once they were scattered around the building surfaces, on the metals and on the soil ground. How could someone be responsible for such substances without learning how to safely deal with them? Chemical containers were found next to the fuel, flammable liquids and batteries were stored next to each other; this major hazard was a ticking bomb near the homes of many. Containers were found with false labeling and missing data on the time they were received and opened. Both acids should be stored separately under strict security, locked with keys, and only reliable people should have access to such dangerous zones. Picric acid for instance, was used purely for military explosives when it was dried, this bitter acid must be kept in a hydrated layer stored in a cool ventilated cabinet all by itself without any chemicals next to it. Any metal (zinc, copper, lead) that touches the acids reacts so vigorously forming salts on the surface of the metals where they become so sensitive and at risk of exploding at any minute. The safest way to transport and ship picric acid to the warehouse is by containers made out of plastic or glass, and only specialists know how to deal with them.

Additionally, the boiling point of HF is 19.5° degrees and the port lacked proper cooling and drying system to preserve the HF without evaporating in the summer season. It seems as though they forgot about how hot the temperature gets in August. HF should be stored in a very tight and closed container in polyethylene, fluorocarbon plastic, or lead. This poisonous acid needs adequate ventilation because once it is inhaled the vapors cause severe problems in the respiratory system.

That was all I could write that day.  

I closed my journal and turned on the news. “It is not my fault”, that is the only sentence that was repeated over and over again. No one was willing to take the blame, and everyone was pointing fingers somewhere else. A chemistry student at AUB was able to come up with more words in her journal on the explosion, than political figures responsible for the upkeep of an entire country and its population. What does that tell you?


Secondary Authors:

  • Alaa Al Mikkawi
  • Abdel Aziz Kordieh
  • Amira Fawaz
  • Abir Hajj Houssein
  • Carl Zoghzoghi
  • Christelle Rassi
  • Jawad Hmayed
  • Marc Darazi
  • Mohammad Asaad
  • Mohammad Daoud
  • Nadeen Abbas

One thought on “The Explosion that Silenced Beirut

  1. It is such a great article. I enjoyed reading every word of it and felt I was there. My heart goes out for every person who had to encounter such tragedy. A tragedy turning a chemist to a writer.
    The Phoenix will rise again my beautiful Lebanon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: