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Beirut explosion: Lebanese people scramble to find missing people online

The explosion has killed at least 100 people and injured at least 4,000, with many more still unaccounted for
People are using social media to try and locate loved ones who went missing during the blast (AFP/Instagram screengrab)

Tuesday's devastating explosion at Beirut’s port ravaged homes across the capital of Lebanon and destroyed much of the surrounding area. At least 100 people have been killed and 4,000 injured, with many more still unaccounted for.

The blast has been blamed on explosive materials being stored at the port. Rescue teams have been searching through the rubble of ruined neighbourhoods for the missing.

Online groups have been set up to find those who have gone missing in the aftermath of the blast.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

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There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation at the time reported that "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".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Hours after the explosion took place, an Instagram page called "Locate victims Beirut" was set up to share photos of missing people.

The page quickly garnered over 70,000 followers, many frantically providing information that could help or sending in images of loved ones who had not yet been found. 

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The page was able to locate around 40 people, who were found undergoing surgery at the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUMBC). 

The head of the Lebanese Red Cross told local broadcasters on Wednesday that more than 100 people had died following the blast at a warehouse in the city's port.

In a show of solidarity, many people also took to social media to offer rides to hospitals outside of Beirut, as hospitals became inundated with patients injured by glass and materials from buildings. 

Careem, a service App offering car and taxi rides operating in Lebanon, offered free rides to hospitals for those donating blood as the number of injuries spiked. 

People have also taken to social media to share locations where people can give blood.

With so many injured, hospitals - which have also reported damage from the blast - have been inundated with patients. Locals on social media have said that some of the wounded were being turned away from facilities unable to cope with the strain on a healthcare system already struggling under the coronavirus pandemic

The Lebanese Red Cross urged people to go to hospitals only if they are critically ill and called on people to donate blood if they are able to. 

The blast comes as Lebanon deals with a devastating economic crisis, with the Lebanese pound losing 80 percent of its value in less than a year, in addition to a surge of coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed hospitals. 

The blast has caused devastation across the city, with many homes, hospitals and buildings left with shattered glass and damaged structures. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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