Fireworks and ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, experts and videos of the blast suggest.
The scale of the damage – from the epicentre of the explosion at the port of Beirut to the windows blown out kilometres (miles) away – resembles 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 initially 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, said an expert
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.”
“If you have a fire raging next to something explosive, and you don’t put it out, it blows up,” he said.
The white cloud that accompanied the massive blast appeared to be a condensation cloud.
Often common in massive explosions in humid conditions that can follow the shock waves of an explosion, Lewis said.
Orange clouds also followed the blast, likely from toxic nitrogen dioxide gas that’s released after an explosion involving nitrates.
Experts should be able to 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.
What initially started the fire at the port remains unclear.
Beirut was sunny before Tuesday’s explosion, with a daily high of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, in comments to a local TV station, made no mention of ignited fireworks.
He 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.
The devastation surrounding the port resembled other ammonium nitrate explosions, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
A 1947 ship explosion that struck Texas City, Texas.