CMA CGM worker among missing in Beirut

Two tons of ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that brought down a federal building and killed 168 people. More than 2,700 tons of the chemical used in fertilizer and bombs is believed to have detonated Tuesday and destroyed the Port of Beirut, leveled surrounding neighborhoods, injured at least 4,000 people and killed more than 110. 

Officials in Lebanon are saying the ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse since it was confiscated in 2014.

The death toll is expected to continue to climb as more than 100 people are reported missing and rescue crews in Beirut are combing through rubble. One of the missing is an employee of the CMA CGM Group, which said it has 261 people based in Beirut.

“At this stage, the preliminary toll shows two seriously injured and many minor injuries. One member of our staff at the port is currently missing. We are doing our utmost to locate him in collaboration with local authorities,” CMA CGM said Wednesday, adding that its headquarters in Lebanon, located a few hundred yards from the site of the explosion, was severely damaged.

The CMA CGM Lyra was only about 1,640 yards from the explosion site, but the container ship, with a capacity of 11,400 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), was not damaged, the company said. 

“An operational organization has been put in place to establish a logistics hub in Tripoli. All ships are diverted to Tripoli or other terminals in the region until further notice,” CMA CGM said.

An estimated 200,000 homeless

Drone footage shows all port structures were wiped out by the explosion, which occurred about 6 p.m. Tuesday. The port had about a dozen warehouses, including one dedicated to hazardous goods, and the capacity to handle 745,000 TEUs.

There has been some good news Wednesday. Eleven missing Filipino seafarers have been found alive, according to CNN Philippines, which said they were on board the MV Orient Queen cruise ship, which was berthed just 437 yards from the site of the explosion.  

In addition to the Lyra and the Orient Queen, there were five other ships in port at the time of the explosion, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence. They are the general cargo ships Mero Star and Raouf-H, vehicle carriers Jouri and City of Rome, and the DPS Tramontane tug.

Destruction reportedly extends at least 2 miles from the port, and an estimated 200,000 people have been left homeless in Lebanon’s capital. 

Lebanon President Michel Aoun chaired a special session of the Supreme Defense Council on Wednesday, according to his website, declared a two-week state of emergency and “assigned a commission of inquiry to the reasons that led to the explosion disaster that occurred in the Port of Beirut and [to ensure] maximum penalties are applied against the responsible.”

The president’s office quoted Lebanon Prime Minister Hassan Diab as vowing to find “the person responsible for what happened and hold him accountable and impose the most severe penalties because it is unacceptable that a shipment of ammonium estimated at 2,750 [tons] be present for six years in a warehouse without taking preventive measures.”

Tuesday’s explosion reminded Andrew Kinsey, a senior marine risk consultant with Allianz Risk Consulting LLC, of the August 2015 explosion at the Port of Tianjin in northern China that killed at least 165 people. 

Investigators found the explosion that ripped through a Ruihai Logistics Co. warehouse in Tianjin was caused by the improper storage of flammable chemicals. In November 2016, 49 people were sentenced for crimes related to the explosion, which caused more than $1 billion in damage.

“While I do not care to speculate [on the Beirut explosion cause], it would be a good time to revisit and review the lessons learned from the 2015 Tianjin port explosion,” Kinsey told American Shipper.

Hapag-Lloyd office destroyed

The Supreme Defense Council said Wednesday that commercial operations usually carried out at the Port of Beirut should be handled by Lebanon’s Port of Tripoli.

Hapag-Lloyd, which said its office in Lebanon was destroyed but all staff are safe, is not accepting any cargo to and from Beirut. 

“The Port of Beirut has put all operations on hold and access to the area is not permitted. There were no Hapag-Lloyd vessels present in the port yesterday, but our containers, both laden and empty, most probably have been affected by the blast,” it said.

Hapag-Loyd said the Fleur N call at the Port of Beirut scheduled for Friday has been canceled and that the cargo bound for Lebanon will be discharged at Damietta, Egypt. The APL Norway also was scheduled to call Beirut on Friday. That ship has been diverted to Tripoli.

Mediterranean Shipping Co., which had no vessels at the Port of Beirut at the time of the explosion, said it was “in close contact with the terminal operator to understand the extent of any damage to the infrastructure and equipment and when the terminal will be operational again.” 

“Due to the incident, calls at the Beirut Container Terminal are currently being omitted and MSC is finding alternative contingency arrangements for cargo due to be loaded/discharged in Beirut until normal operations resume,” the shipping line said.

The closure of the port is expected to greatly disrupt the import of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Lebanon reportedly imported 257,750 tons of LPG, used for heating and cooking, last year. 

Hailey Desmoreaux, senior research analyst with BlueWater Reporting, said 18 liner shipping services call the Port of Beirut, and six of those 18 sail beyond the Mediterranean region.

“The Port of Beirut plays a major role in container shipping,” Desmoreaux said. “Vessels over 13,200 TEUs have been regularly frequenting the port on the Ocean Alliance’s MEX/WM2 loop that sails between Asia and the Mediterranean.”

Senior Editor Greg Miller contributed to this story. 

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