Middle East

'They were greedy': Cargo ship captain reveals the origin of chemical stockpile behind Beirut blast

A drone picture shows smoke from the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut in Lebanon. Source: AP

The huge blast killed 145 people, injured 5,000, flattened buildings and made more than a quarter of a million people homeless.

The chemicals that went up in flames in Beirut's deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

"They were being greedy," said Boris Prokoshev, who was captain of the Rhosus in 2013 when he says the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.

Mr Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tonnes of a highly combustible chemical from Georgia to Mozambique when the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.

Panic and first rescue services after a huge unknown blast at the Hotel Dieu hospital emergency service in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020. Photo by Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM.
Firefighters douse a blaze burning in the rubble caused by a massive explosion in Beirut.
ABACA

The crew were asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan's Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey onto Africa, where the ammonium nitrate was to be delivered to an explosives manufacturer.

But the ship was never to leave Beirut, having tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo before becoming embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.

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"It was impossible," Mr Prokoshev, 70, told Reuters of the operation to try and load the extra cargo.

"It could have ruined the whole ship and I said no," he said by phone from his home in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

The destroyed silo sits in rubble and debris after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020
The destroyed silo sits in rubble and debris after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut.
AP

The captain and lawyers acting for some creditors accused the ship's owner of abandoning the vessel and succeeded in having it arrested.

Months later, for safety reasons, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse.

On Tuesday, that stockpile caught fire and exploded not far from a built-up residential area of the city.

The huge blast killed 145 people, injured 5,000, flattened buildings and made more than a quarter of a million people homeless.

The ship might have succeeded in leaving Beirut, had it managed to load the additional cargo.

The crew had stacked the equipment, including excavators and road-rollers, on top of the doors to the cargo hold which held the ammonium nitrate below, according to the ship's Ukrainian boatswain, Boris Musinchak. But the hold doors buckled.

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"The ship was old and the cover of the hold bent," Mr Musinchak said by phone. "We decided not to take risks."

The captain and three crew spent 11 months on the ship while the legal dispute dragged on, without wages and with only limited supplies of food. Once they left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded.

"The cargo was highly explosive. That's why it was kept on board when we were there ... That ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration," Mr Prokoshev said.

Initial Lebanese investigations into what happened have pointed to inaction and negligence in the handling of the potentially dangerous chemical.

Lebanon's cabinet on Wednesday agreed to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, ministerial sources said.

The head of Beirut port and the head of customs said that several letters were sent to the judiciary asking for the material be removed, but no action was taken.

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Reuters could not immediately reach Lebanon's justice minister for comment. The Justice Ministry is closed for three days of national mourning.

According to Mr Prokoshev, the ship had been leaking but was seaworthy when it sailed into Beirut in September 2013.

However, he said Lebanese authorities paid little attention to the ammonium nitrate, which had been stacked in the hull in large sacks.

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