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Fireworks, Chemicals May Have Sparked Huge Lebanese Explosion

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Fireworks and ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The scale of the damage — from the epicenter of the explosion at the port of Beirut to the windows blown out miles away — resembles that of other blasts involving the chemical compound commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer.

But the compound itself typically doesn’t detonate on its own and requires another ignition source. That likely came from a fire that engulfed what appeared to be fireworks that were stored at the port.

Online videos of the disaster’s initial moments show sparks and lights inside the smoke rising from the blaze, just prior to the massive blast.

That likely indicates that fireworks were involved, according to Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives.

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“Before the big explosion, you can see in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” Hayoun told The Associated Press.

“This is very specific behavior of fireworks, the visuals, the sounds and the transformation from a slow burn to a massive explosion.”

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, offered a similar assessment.

“It looks like an accident,” Lewis told the AP. “First, there was a fire preceding the explosion, which is not an attack. And some of the videos show munitions what I could call popcorning, exploding like ’pop, pop, pop, pop.’”

He added that “it’s very common to see fires detonate explosives.”

The white cloud that accompanied the massive blast appeared to be a condensation cloud, often common in explosions in humid conditions, Lewis said.

Orange clouds also followed the blast, likely from toxic nitrogen dioxide gas that’s released after an explosion involving nitrates.

Experts typically determine the power of the blast by measuring the crater left behind, which appeared massive in aerial footage shot on Wednesday morning by the AP.

The Beirut blast, based on the crater and glass windows blown out a distance away, exploded with the force equivalent to detonating at least 2.2 kilotons of TNT, according to Sim Tack, an analyst and weapons expert at the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor.

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But Hayoun, the Israeli expert, said he estimated the force of the blast to be about 1 kiloton of TNT. He based his figure on the amount of ammonium nitrate that was reported and said “we need to be careful with specific statements” due to still incomplete information available.

What initially started the fire at the port remains unclear. Beirut was sunny before Tuesday’s explosion, with a daily high of 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, in comments to a local TV station, made no mention of ignited fireworks but said it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

That amount could cause the explosive force seen in the blast Tuesday, Tack said.

Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” the lawyers wrote in 2015. “The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

It remains unclear in what conditions the ammonium nitrate had been stored — or why tons of an explosive chemical compound had been left there for years.

The devastation surrounding the port resembled other ammonium nitrate explosions, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and a 1947 ship explosion that struck Texas City, Texas.

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