Port of Beirut officials under house arrest following explosion

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Willie Adams said he was not surprised to learn Port of Beirut officials had been taken into custody in connection with Tuesday’s devastating warehouse explosion.

“Reports that the Lebanese government has put port authorities under house arrest while investigating the dubious storage of these explosive materials on the docks since 2014 and the likelihood that these deaths were preventable are deeply disturbing but not surprising developments to those of us who work on the waterfront,” Adams said in a statement. 

The ILWU represents workers on the waterfront at West Coast ports in the United States and Canada.

“Employers, port authorities and government agencies should always hold safety paramount on the waterfront, but left unchecked, complacency and profit motive too often put workers’ lives at risk,” Adams said. “The shocking images we are seeing in the news illustrate why dockworker unions fight for safety on the docks and the safe movement of cargo: to protect our lives and communities.”

Tuesday’s blast is believed to have been caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a Port of Beirut warehouse.

The ammonium nitrate, used in agricultural fertilizer, was destined for Mozambique in 2013. But the Russian-owned MV Rhosus stopped at the Port of Beirut because of what has been called “financial difficulties” — and never left. After the ship was abandoned, the cargo was transferred to a warehouse.

Willie Adams leads the ILWU.

The Lebanese state news agency NNA reported that 16 individuals had been taken into custody as part of the investigation. It quoted a government representative who said that investigators had “questioned more than 18 port and customs officials and individuals responsible for or involved in maintenance work at the warehouse housing highly explosive material that blew up.”

CNN reported Friday that documents suggested multiple government agencies in Lebanon knew the dangerous chemical was being stored in the Beirut warehouse and may have failed to safeguard it. 

There is precedence to prosecute. Forty-nine people were sentenced for crimes related to the improper storage of flammable chemicals that caused an August 2015 explosion at the Port of Tianjin in China that killed at least 165 people.

Lebanon’s Ministry of Health on Friday published a list of the dead from Tuesday’s explosion, their nationalities and the hospitals with their bodies. There are 152 dead on the list. Of those, 17 had not been identified. 

By Friday afternoon, the death toll had risen to 154. More than 5,000 were injured.

One of the dead was a CMA CGM employee, who had been unaccounted for after the explosion. Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. International identified him as Georges Roukoz.

“The CMA CGM Group is sad to announce the passing of one of our staff members who went missing on [Tuesday] after the Beirut explosions,” the shipping line said in a statement. “We are deeply affected by this tragedy and extend our condolences to his family, colleagues and all of his loved ones.”

Adams said ILWU members are grieving for all who lost their lives at the Port of Beirut.

“While the chaos of the explosion has yet to reveal the full scope of human loss, we are heartbroken to learn that longshore workers lost their lives when their work site became ground zero for the catastrophic explosion. The city of Beirut and thousands of families will never be the same,” Adams said. 

Port of Beirut explosion forces diversion of vessels

CMA CGM worker among missing in Beirut

Death toll climbing after Port of Beirut explosion

Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.