Baltimore building explosion injures 23, traps window washers

(Reuters) -An explosion shook a mostly empty downtown Baltimore office building on Wednesday, injuring 23 people, at least nine of them critically, and leaving two window washers dangling from a scaffold outside the structure, authorities said.

Of the 23 people rescued from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co building after the explosion and partial collapse of its roof, 21 were taken to area hospitals, and two declined additional treatment, the Baltimore City Fire Department said.

Nine of the injured were in critical condition and one was in serious condition, the fire department said in a statement.

The window washers were rescued after dangling several stories high when their scaffold partially gave way, the local firefighters’ union said.

Firefighters quickly extinguished a blaze on the 16th floor where evidence suggested the explosion occurred, Local 734 of the International Association of Fire Fighters said in a statement.

The fire department said it was investigating the cause of the blast and fire, but Baltimore Gas and Electric said construction work being done on the building’s air handling and boiler system “likely caused the incident.”

“The building was largely empty due to the upcoming holidays and the pandemic,” said the company, which is owned by Exelon Corp.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller)

Hundreds of disillusioned doctors leave Lebanon, in blow to healthcare

By Samia Nakhoul and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fouad Boulos returned to Beirut in 2007 from the United States having trained there in pathology and laboratory medicine. He was so confident that Lebanon was the right place to be that he gave up his American residence green card.

Fourteen years later he is leaving his homeland with his wife and five children and returning to the United States to try his luck starting from scratch.

In the past year, Lebanon has been through a popular uprising against its political leaders, the bankruptcy of the state and banking system, a COVID-19 pandemic and, in August, a huge explosion at the port that destroyed swathes of Beirut.

Some of those who can leave the country have done so, and an increasing number of them are doctors and surgeons, many at the top of their profession. With them goes Beirut’s proud reputation as the medical capital of the Middle East.

“This is a mass exodus,” said Boulos, Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

“It will keep on going,” he told Reuters. “If I had hope I would have stayed but I have no hope – not in the near nor in the intermediate future – for Lebanon.”

As he spoke at his mountain residence in Beit Mery, a forested area with sweeping views over Beirut, his wife helped pack up their last possessions, ready to return to the United States.

Suitcases lined the hallway, and one of his daughters was online saying final farewells to school friends and her teacher.

“It breaks my heart. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, leaving everything behind,” Boulos added.

Many highly qualified physicians, who were in demand across the United States and Europe before they returned to Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, are throwing in the towel, having lost hope in its future.

They are not only seeing wages fall, but also face shortages of equipment, staff and even some basic supplies in their hospitals as Lebanon runs out of hard currency to pay for imports.

BLEEDING TALENT

Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the doctors’ syndicate, said the departure of 400 doctors so far this year creates a major problem, especially for university hospitals where they both practice and teach.

“This bleeding of talent does not bode well, especially if the situation lasts long and there are others who are preparing to leave,” he said.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan agreed.

“Their expertise was built over many years and is very hard to lose overnight. We will need many years to return the medical sector to its former glory,” he told Reuters.

Protests that erupted last year and brought down the government had raised hopes that politicians, selected by a system in which leaders of Christian and Muslim sects shared the top jobs, could be pushed aside.

Then came the Aug. 4 blast, when large amounts of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 200 people, injuring 6,000, making 300,000 people homeless and destroying large parts of the capital Beirut including several hospitals.

“The explosion was the final nail in the coffin,” Boulos said.

“It crystallized all the fears, all the pain and all the difficulties that we were living through,” added the medic, who trained at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

‘CORRUPT TO THE CORE’

Boulos said he had lost faith in the country’s leadership, after years of instability caused by political bickering.

“Lebanon is corrupt to the core,” he said, echoing the chants of thousands of protesters who packed city streets during the last year.

The country has also had to deal with the influx of more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war, an economy that has buckled under the weight of debt, mass unemployment, poverty, and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Lebanon ordered a nationwide lockdown for around two weeks to stem the spread of the virus, as intensive care units reached critical capacity.

Hassan, the caretaker health minister, has said an agreement was reached with the central bank to allocate funds for private hospitals to set up COVID-19 wings and that the state would pay hospital dues for the first six months of 2020.

The government had for years owed hospitals arrears and their unpaid bills are mounting.

Ghazi Zaatari, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Chair of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at AUB, said he feared the exodus would accelerate.

“For the past 10 years we put a lot of effort into recruiting around 220 faculty members, and now it is very disheartening to see that many of those we hired are leaving again.”

Doctors in Lebanon, although relatively well paid, generally earn less than they did abroad.

Over the past year they have seen real incomes drop due to the 80% devaluation in the currency.

The caretaker health minister said the state was seeking international help to prop up depreciated salaries of doctors to slow the exodus.

But both Boulos and Zaatari said money was not the main problem.

“Money is an issue, but this lack of trust and confidence in the political leadership (for) a safe, secure and successful future is a huge factor,” Zaatari said.

“I am one of those who came back in the mid-90s believing that there was a promise of a better future and a reconstruction plan, only to find that 20 years later everything is collapsing and the promises were false promises. We were robbed big time.”

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, Imad Creidi and Nancy Mahfouz; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Lebanese demand change after government quits over Beirut blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come close to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes.

The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres across on dock nine, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.

A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 171 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

“It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still (President Michel) Aoun, (Parliament Speaker Nabih) Berri and the entire system.”

For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.

SECTARIAN SYSTEM

The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery.

“It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.

Diab formed his government in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as premier amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The presidency has yet to say when official consultations will take place.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.

A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.

“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jarasevic said eight emergency international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay.

Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds metres from the port.

“As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Gas explosion destroys Baltimore homes, one dead and children trapped

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A gas explosion ripped through a Baltimore neighborhood on Monday, killing at least one person, injuring four and trapping children as the blast destroyed at least three homes, firefighters said.

Fire officials described it as a natural gas explosion but said the exact cause was under investigation.

The blast destroyed three brick row homes and ripped open the wall of another, spreading debris throughout the neighborhood. Rescuers picked through the rubble, searching for victims with their hands and hand tools, Baltimore City Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams told reporters at the scene.

One woman was killed, four people were hospitalized in serious condition, and firefighters were trying to rescue a sixth person, fire officials said.

At one point at least five people were trapped, some of them children, the Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 said on Twitter.

Neighbors responding to the blast dug through rubble and called out for victims.

One neighbor told the Baltimore Sun he could hear shouts from trapped children.

“Come get us! We’re stuck!” came the cries, Kevin Matthews told the Sun.

Matthews found one person buried from the neck down and another sheltering in a closet, the Sun said.

“You knew it was something catastrophic,” Dean Jones told WBFF television about hearing the blast. “I didn’t think. I didn’t grab shoes. I took off running. I followed the smoke. I started yelling to come help.”

Jones and several other neighbors freed at least one woman from the scene.

“Once they said a kid was in there, I lost it. I said I had to get in there now,” Jones told WBAL television.

But he also wanted no special accolades, saying, “I am not a hero, I’m a human.”

Neighbors said their windows were blown out and doors blasted off the hinges, the Sun reported.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Beirut blast a wake-up call on dangers of ammonium nitrate, experts warn

By Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Houreld

(Reuters) – The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say.

Lebanese authorities said 2,750 tonnes of the industrial chemical had been stored for six years at Beirut port without safety measures. That stockpile exploded on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring thousands and leaving about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Commonly used in fertilizers and as an industrial explosive, ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if handled properly, but it has proved lethal.

In one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents, 567 people were killed in Texas in 1947 when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship.

“Beirut, like Texas, is a wake-up call. We should learn from these catastrophes and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Stewart Walker, of the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Some countries have banned ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer because it has been used by militant bomb-makers and since Tuesday’s blast, some governments have been urged to relocate stockpiles.

Chris Owen, a U.N. explosives adviser, said few countries make ammonium nitrate but many use it, often importing it by sea. Since many ports have had cities develop around them, large quantities are moving through cities on a regular basis. “If it’s managed properly, it’s no risk,” Owen said.

In terms of safety, experts say, quantity, ventilation and proximity to flammables are critical, as is distance from population centers.

Anger has been mounting in Lebanon at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of the chemical to be stored near a residential area for years in unsafe conditions.

The United Nations has issued guidelines on safe storage and transportation but regulations vary from country to country, experts said.

Global variation on regulation is a concern, said Julia Meehan, the managing editor of ICIS Fertilizers, a trade publication. “There’s no global body that looks across it, it’s country to country or regional,” said Meehan. “It can even differ from port to port.”

One expert, who asked not to be identified, said political instability was a major factor in enforcement. He cited Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and South American countries. “If the country is at war, or struggling with an insurgency or other problems, they have other issues to deal with,” he said.

Global data on storage is spotty, said Hans Reuvers, a German-based expert on ammonium nitrate and fertilizer technology and executive committee member at the Ammonium Nitrate/Nitric Acid Producers Study Group (ANNA).

Germany only allows 25 tonnes of pure ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, Reuvers said. France toughened its regulations after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse killed 31 people.

“You have to store it in non-flammable bins, keep them far away from flammable materials. There are similar regulations across Europe as well as in East Asia,” Reuvers said.

GLOBAL TRADE

Worldwide trade in ammonium nitrate in 2018 was worth $2.14 billion, with Russia the leading exporter, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, and Brazil the largest importer.

The United States and Europe are the leading consumers of ammonium nitrates, according to London-based IHS Markit, accounting for just over half of global consumption in 2019.

Countries with large stockpiles tend to have large mining or industrial agriculture industries, said Roger Read, of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.

“Those would tend to be most large, industrialized countries – Britain, the U.S., Russia, China – as well as India and other smaller countries in Europe,” Read said.

The United States in 2019 eased chemical-safety regulations implemented after a deadly ammonium nitrate blast in 2013. The move cut costly regulations but still kept safety measures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the EPA should add ammonium nitrate to a list of regulated chemicals needing increased oversight, calling present U.S. regulations “thoroughly inadequate.”

The United States does not maintain a public database on the locations of ammonium nitrate, meaning people do not know if they live near one, said Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how much of this material exists and where,” Craft said. “You don’t know the magnitude of that risk because of the lack of information that’s available.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Tangi Salaun, Jonathan Saul, Gus Trompiz, Polina Devitt, Guy Faulconbridge, Josephine Mason, Stephen Farrell, Tom Polansek and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)

Beirut reels from huge blast as death toll climbs to at least 135

By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese rescue teams pulled out bodies and hunted for missing in the wreckage of buildings on Wednesday as investigations blamed negligence for a massive warehouse explosion that sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 135.

More than 5,000 other people were injured in Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut port, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, and up to 250,000 were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows miles inland.

Hassan said tens of people remained missing. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday.

The death toll was expected to rise from the blast, which officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.

The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections. The blast rattled buildings on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.

In an address to the nation during an emergency cabinet session, Aoun said: “No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city”.

He said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.

The cabinet ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters. The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.

‘COLLAPSE OF LEBANON’

Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon’s financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.

The health minister said the death toll had climbed to 135, as the search for victims continued after shockwaves from the blast hurled some of the victims into the sea.

Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on those still missing. Many of those killed were port and custom employees, people working in the area or those driving nearby during the Tuesday evening rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues as hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials said hospitals were struggling with the big influx of casualties and were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured and those in critical condition.

Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center was “like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts,” said Sara, one of its nurses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV that collective losses after the blast might reach $10 billion to $15 billion, saying the estimate included both direct and indirect losses related to business.

“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone,” said Bilal, a man in his 60’s, in the downtown area.

Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies.

Turkey said it would send 20 doctors to Beirut to help treat the injured, as well as medical and relief assistance, Iraq pledged fuel aid while Iran offered food and a field hospital.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a tweet: “We sympathize with the dear Lebanese citizens and stand by them in the painful tragedy of the Beirut port explosion…Patience in the face of this incident will be a golden leaf of honor for Lebanon.”

The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political and economic change in Lebanon, also offered aid. Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus offered specialized search and rescue teams.

Two French planes were expected to arrive on Thursday with 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic. French President Emmanuel Macron will also visit Lebanon on Thursday. Other Arab and European countries are sending doctors, mobile hospitals and equipment.

‘CATASTROPHE’

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had since been rebuilt.

“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage.

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.

Taxi driver Abou Khaled said ministers “are the first that should be held accountable for this disaster. They committed a crime against the people of this nation with their negligence.”

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.

Beirut Governor Abboud said amounts of available wheat were currently limited and he reckoned a crisis might develop without international intervention.

Lebanon had already been struggling to house and feed refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Syria and has no trade or other ties with its only other neighbor Israel.

“On a scale, this explosion is scaled down from a nuclear bomb rather than up from a conventional bomb,” said Roland Alford, managing director of British explosive ordnance disposal firm Alford Technologies. “This is huge.”

The blast prompted the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday to postpone its verdict in the trial over the 2005 bombing that killed ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri to Aug. 18. The tribunal’s decision had been expected this Friday.

The U.N.-backed court put on trial four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah. Hariri and 21 others were killed by a big truck bomb in another area of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Ghaida Ghantous, Alaa Swilam and Omar Fahmy; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich)

Massive blast sends seismic shock across Beirut, causing thousands of casualties

By Samia Nakhoul and Yara Abi Nader

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the center of Beirut killed more than 25 people, injured over 2,500 others and sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere – in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion.”

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 25 people had been killed and more than 2,500 were injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

DAY OF MOURNING

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the country’s Supreme Defense Council, according to the presidency’s Twitter account. Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday’s blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had “disappeared” after the explosion.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast bangs. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

“All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos,” a Reuters witness said.

(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Dubai and Beirut bureau; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Ghaida Ghantous and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones and Edmund Blair)

Two deaths confirmed as machine shop blast rips Houston neighborhood

By Collin Eaton

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A massive explosion at a machine shop ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, and police said at least two people were killed and several injured while homes were damaged by the explosion that sent out blast waves detected for miles.

“First and foremost, I want to say that we do have confirmed fatalities in this case, at least two confirmed fatalities,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a press briefing.

Acevedo said police and fire officials will conduct an arson investigation that could take several weeks, but stressed there is no current evidence of foul play. “Having said that, when you have this kind of a type of incident, part of our protocol is to always conduct a criminal investigation,” he added.

Aerial video showed the shredded and collapsed wreckage of the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing building smoldering but no longer flaming, along with widespread damage to area homes and businesses from the force of the blast.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on video by a home security camera and aired on KTRK. It showed a blinding flash in the distance followed by a fireball.

“I thought it was thunder,” said Bruce Meikle, 78, an owner of nearby manufacturer ChemSystems, who heard the explosion from his home about a mile (1.5 km) from the scene. He told Reuters the force of the blast bent back the metal loading doors at his business and caused minor damage inside, he said.

Paul Crea, 59, a chemist who works for Meikle, said the blast woke him 10 miles (16 km) away in Katy, a Houston suburb, and his dogs bellowed at the sound.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

The explosion “knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim told KPRC, an NBC affiliate. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

The blast originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, which provides coatings, machining and grinding about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of central Houston.

The company’s owner told ABC affiliate KTRK a propylene gas explosion sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, reporter Marla Carter said on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton, Peter Szekely and Bhargav Acharya; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson, Frances Kerry, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Huge explosion rips through Houston neighborhood, causing several injuries

(Reuters) – A massive explosion at a manufacturing building ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, injuring several people and damaging homes while sending out blast waves detected for miles around, officials and media said.

Smoke poured out from inside the structure in the predawn darkness about two hours after the blast as emergency vehicle lights flashed and first responders blocked access and checked for damage, aerial video from KTRK television showed.

No fatalities were reported, but one employee was unaccounted for, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on a home security camera, also aired on KTRK, that showed a blinding flash in the distance, followed by a fireball.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

“(The explosion) knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim said. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

KTRK, the local ABC affiliate, said the blast appeared to have originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, a machining and manufacturing company. The explosion took place on Gessner Road in northwestern Houston, city police wrote on Twitter.

“The owner of Watson Grinding tells us it was a propylene gas explosion, which sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries,” KTRK reporter Marla Carter wrote on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

The debris field from the explosion spread about a half mile (1 km) wide, but there were no known toxic gases emitted from the blast, Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

The explosion damaged several homes in the area, the Houston Chronicle reported, showing pictures of homes with windows blown in and debris scattered.

At least two people had cuts on their faces after their windows were blown in, according to pictures published on the Chronicle website.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

A hazardous materials team was responding to the area and at least one person was taken to the hospital, the Houston Fire Department wrote on Twitter.

Mike Iscovitz, a meteorologist with the local Fox News channel, said the huge blast had shown up on local weather radar and was felt more than 20 miles (32 km) away.

“Radar clearly shows this brief FLASH of reflectivity from NW Houston,” he tweeted.

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Peter Szekely; Writing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)