One of the world's biggest-ever peacetime explosions tore through the port in Beirut last night, killing at least 100 people, injuring thousands more and laying waste to a large part of the Lebanese capital.
More than 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in fertilizer bombs, detonated when a fire apparently sparked by a welder spread to the warehouse where it had been stored for six years.
Apocalyptic scenes saw a thick red-orange mushroom cloud envelop streets surrounding the port, where buildings burned and emergency crews frantically searched the rubble for survivors.
Damaged hospitals were last night creaking under the strain of more than 4,000 casualties wounded by the blast, which was even heard 125 miles away in Cyprus.
Rescuers worked through the night into Wednesday morning in a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades.
Residents of Beirut awoke to a scene of devastation this morning with smoke still rising from the port, where a towering grain silo was shattered. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.
The head of Lebanon's Red Cross said: 'What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe. There are victims and casualties everywhere.'
In a statement released this morning the humanitarian agency said that more than 100 people had lost their lives.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab has vowed those responsible will 'pay the price' and plunged the country into a two-week state of emergency.
The United States, the UK, France, the Gulf states and even bitter rivals Israel have offered aid to the country, which is already grappling with twin economic and coronavirus crises.
Witnesses likened the explosion to a nuclear detonation, and scientists making initial calculations said the 2,750 tonnes of hazardous chemicals produced a blast equivalent to about three kilotons of TNT - roughly a fifth the force of the Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in the Second World War.
President Michel Aoun declared three days of mourning, and announced he would release 100 billion lira ($66 million) of emergency funds.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim earlier said the 'highly explosive material' had been confiscated years earlier, reportedly from a ship.
President Donald Trump last night called the explosion a 'terrible attack' and said US generals had told him it appeared to have been caused by a 'bomb of some kind', without offering evidence.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
Critical infrastructure was affected by the blast, including the port, the airport and hospitals.
Firefighters had already been on the scene dealing with an initial blaze when the explosion took place. One security source told Reuters today that the initial fire was caused during welding work on a hole in a warehouse wall.
That fire spread, and before firefighters could control it, apparently detonated the ammonium nitrate.
One Israeli bomb expert suggested fireworks could have been involved in the initial blaze.
Explosives certification expert Boaz Hayoun said: 'Before the big explosion ... in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles. This is very specific behavior of fireworks.'
After the second, more devastating explosion, images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than six million.
Charbel Haj, who works at the harbour, said the explosion started as small explosions like firecrackers before he was suddenly thrown off his feet by the huge blast.
The explosion damaged the Roum Hospital, which put out a call for people to bring it spare generators to keep its electricity going as it evacuated patients because of heavy damage.
Outside the St George University Hospital in Beirut's Achrafieh neighbuorhood, people with various injuries arrived in ambulances, in cars and on foot.
The explosion had caused major damage inside the building and knocked out the electricity at the hospital. Dozens of injured were being treated on the spot on the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.
Lebanon's Red Cross said it had been drowning in calls from injured people, many who are still trapped in their homes.
Miles from the scene of the blast, balconies were knocked down, ceiling collapsed and windows were shattered.
Beirut's main airport, six miles away from the port, was reportedly damaged by the explosion, with pictures showing sections of collapsed ceiling.
Beirut's governor told journalists he does not know the cause of the explosion and said he had never seen such destruction, comparing the sobering scenes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Local Fady Roumieh was stood in the car park to shopping centre ABC Mall Achrafieh, around 2km east of the blast, when the explosion occurred.
He said: 'It was like a nuclear bomb. The damage is so widespread and severe all over the city.
'Some buildings as far as 2km are partially collapsed. It's like a war zone. The damage is extreme. Not one glass window intact.'
A soldier at the port, where relatives of the missing scrambled for news of their loved ones, said: 'It's a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.'
A woman in her twenties stood screaming at security forces, asking about the fate of her brother, a port employee.
'His name is Jad, his eyes are green,' she pleaded, to no avail as officers refused her entry.
'It was like an atomic bomb,' said Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades.
'I've experienced everything, but nothing like this before,' even during the country's 1975-1990 civil war, she said.
'All the buildings around here have collapsed.'
One witness said: '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.'
For a long time after the blast, ambulance sirens sounded across the city and helicopters hovered above.
Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city's western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east).
And in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island lying 110 miles (180 km) northwest of Beirut, residents reported hearing two large bangs in quick succession.
One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters it was not immediately clear what the cause was, and that there was no indication of any injuries to any U.N. personnel.
'We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether its accidental or manmade act,' he said.
Condolences poured in from across the world with Gulf nations, the United States and even Lebanon's arch foe Israel offering to send aid. France also promised to send assistance.
The blast revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.
'The blast blew me off metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the U.S. embassy in 1983," said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.
UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed his 'deepest condolences ... following the horrific explosions in Beirut' which he said had also injured some United Nations personnel.
Boris Johnson offered to help the crisis-hit country, tweeting: 'The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking.
'All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident. The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.'
The UK Foreign Office has said a few of its embassy staff sustained non-life threatening injuries in the blast.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said in a tweet: 'The images of explosions in Beirut are deeply worrying. Our thoughts are with those affected, the emergency services and the people of Lebanon.'
Offers of aid also came from bitter rivals Israel, with which it is still technically at war.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, on behalf of the State of Israel, have offered the Lebanese government - via international intermediaries - medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance,' said a joint statement from the two ministries.
Last week, Israel accused the Lebanese group Hezbollah of trying to send gunmen across the UN-demarcated Blue Line and said it held the Lebanese government responsible for what it termed an attempted 'terrorist' attack.
Hezbollah said all of the country's political powers must unite to overcome the 'painful catastrophe'.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that France stood 'alongside Lebanon' and was ready to help, tweeting: 'France stands and will always stand by the side of Lebanon and the Lebanese. It is ready to provide assistance according to the needs expressed by the Lebanese authorities.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: 'We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy.'
Iran's foreign minister has said it is standing by to help Lebanon recover from the fallout of the explosion.
Countries in the Gulf paid tribute to victims of the explosion as Qatar said it would send field hospitals to support Lebanon's medical response.
Qatar's ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani called President Michel Aoun to offer condolences, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency.
Sheikh Tamim wished 'a speedy recovery for the injured,' adding that he 'expressed Qatar's solidarity with brotherly Lebanon and its willingness to provide all kinds of assistance'.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates' Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that 'our hearts are with Beirut and its people'.
He posted the tribute alongside an image of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, illuminated in the colours of the Lebanese flag.
'Our prayers during these difficult hours are that God... protects brotherly Lebanon and the Lebanese to reduce their affliction and heal their wounds,' he wrote.
Gulf countries including Qatar and the UAE maintain close ties with Beirut and have long provided financial aid and diplomatic assistance to mediate Lebanon's political and sectarian divisions.
Bahrain's foreign ministry urged its nationals in Lebanon to contact the ministry's operations centre or Manama's representative in Beirut, while Kuwait ordered its citizens to take extreme caution and stay indoors.
It comes just days before a United Nations tribunal is set to rule on the assassination of the country's former PM Rafik Hariri.
The house of his son, Saad Hariri, who also led the country, was damaged by the blast but he was confirmed safe.
Save the Children said in a statement that members of their team on the ground in the city have reported entire streets destroyed and children unaccounted for.
Despite the charity's offices in the city being badly damaged, they have pledged that a rapid response team is ready to offer support.
Jad Sakr, Save the Children's country director in Lebanon, said: 'We are shocked and devastated by the explosion today.
'The death toll may not be known for several days but we do know is that in a disaster like this, children may be hurt, shocked and separated from their parents.
'Our child protection teams are ready to support the government's efforts, which will almost certainly go on for several days to come.
'It is vital that children and their families get access to the services they urgently need, including medical care and physical and emotional protection.'
He added: 'The incident could not have occurred at a worst time and has hit communities who were already suffering from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and the economic deterioration.
'Beirut's main port, now completely damaged, is vital for much of the food, grains and fuel that Lebanon imports, and families will immediately feel the shortage in basic needs as a result of this tragedy.'
Israel has denied having anything to do with the huge explosion in Beirut, adding that the country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon.
The huge explosion in port warehouses near the city centre as killed more than 70 people, injured at least 4,000 and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground.
Officials said they expected the death toll to rise further after Tuesday's blast as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
Lebanon's interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role.
'Israel has approached Lebanon through international security and diplomatic channels and has offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian assistance,' a written statement from Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said.
Shi'ite Iran, the main backer of militant political party Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.
'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.'
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 taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were packed with wounded. Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to help.
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.
'I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,' Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the nation.
'Those responsible will pay the price,' he said in his televised address, adding that details about the 'dangerous warehouse' would be made public.
The interior minister told Al Jadeed TV that ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since 2014.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port followed by an enormous blast, sending up a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (one mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
It was not immediately clear what caused the initial blaze on Tuesday that set off the blast.
Lebanon's health minister said more than 50 people had been killed and more than 2,750 injured. Lebanon's Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.
The governor of Beirut port told Sky News a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had 'disappeared' after the explosion.
President Michel Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. He said it was 'unacceptable' that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for six years without safety measures.
The prime minister called for a day of mourning.
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 Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.
Western countries including the United States, Britain and France also said they were ready to assist.
Images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than 6 million.
It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and which is already grappling with economic meltdown under one of the world's biggest debt burdens.
Residents said glass was broken in neighbourhoods on Beirut's Mediterranean coast and inland suburbs several kms (miles) away. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.