One of the most awful elements of the devastating August 4 explosion in Beirut, which killed over 200 people and injured more than 6,500, was that it could have easily been prevented. Using videos of the event that were shared on social media, forensics researchers have been able to reconstruct exactly what happened, including the shocking negligence that led to the tragedy.
Before everyone was documenting the world around them using smartphones and social media, determining what caused events like the Beirut explosion was a longer and more complicated process. Forensics researchers may have had the occasional video from a traffic or security camera that allowed them to replay and dissect events like this, but for the most part, they had to rely on a detailed analysis of the aftermath, including the resulting debris and damage, and then couple it with extensive knowledge of explosives to determine the exact cause.
Minutes after the August 4 explosion occurred, those who were recording the initial warehouse fire and captured the subsequent explosion on their smartphones started to share their videos on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. It didn’t take long for people all over the world to witness what had happened, and those videos eventually became a crucial tool for experts at a University of London research group, Forensic Architecture, to reconstruct what caused the tremendous blast that had the same yield as almost 1.5 kilotons of TNT.
Their findings are shared in this 12-minute video that uses random videos captured all over the city to reconstruct everything from the smoke plumes that first started to rise from the warehouse to the blast itself. Unfortunately, it only served to confirm what many had suspected had happened here. Six years prior, in October 2014, 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate (a high-nitrogen fertiliser that also serves as an ingredient in explosives used for mining) were unloaded at the docks in Beirut and stored in a nearby warehouse. Over the years, several reports warned of the safety risks of the material being stored there, including an alarming report from a chemical forensics expert in February 2015, which found that 70% of the almost 3,000 bags holding the ammonium nitrate had been torn open, with the crystalline material spilling out.
News reports and photos taken inside the building before the incident also found that, despite it containing thousands of tonnes of the explosive material, the warehouse was also used to store 20 tonnes of fireworks, over 1,000 rubber car tires, and five rolls of slow-burning detonating cord. According to the forensics researchers and engineering experts, the warehouse’s contents, including how and where the various materials were stored, essentially created a makeshift bomb waiting to go off.
As part of the investigation, the 3D models developed by Forensic Architecture, including the warehouse, the clouds of smoke, the initial blast sphere, and parts of the city of Beirut detailing where several reference videos had been captured, have been made available for download on GitHub. At this point, there’s no question as to why the explosion in Beirut was as severe as it was, but this research will hopefully contribute to new guidelines on the safe handling and storage of these types of materials, as well as new methods of accountability. Hopefully, when red flags are raised in the future, there’s subsequent action to prevent incidents like this from ever happening again.