The timeline in the recent tragic situation in Beirut started more than six years ago when the ship under Russian flag made emergency stop in the city’s port due to considerable technical issues.
The pre-history of this ship called MV Rhosus had long list of debts, it was crewed by sailors who used to stay without salary, and left in far dockyard without any technical support of port staff. Meanwhile, MV Rhosus carried cargo of extreme danger, more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a combustible material used to make explosives for mining works in Mozambique. Then, unexpectedly, the Rhosus diverted to Beirut for what was meant to be a short stop, but due to legal battles, financial wrangling and, apparently, chronic negligence of the owner and of port administration as well, it stayed in Beirut for years and that was the prime cause of horrific accident that devastated one of the Middle East’s most fondly regarded cities.
Senior customs officials wrote to the Lebanese courts at least six times from 2014 to 2017, seeking guidance on how to dispose of the ammonium nitrate, according to public records posted to social media by a Lebanese lawmaker, Salim Aoun. There were a lot of possible solution for this problem (f.e transferring dangerous cargo to Lebanon army, to sell it privately to the privately owned Lebanon Explosives Company or re-export it to ther countries after ownership right reintitlement) and numerous negotiations took place, but finally the cargo of ammonium had stayed in city port until the tragic explosion happened.
“In view of the serious danger posed by keeping this shipment in the warehouses in an inappropriate climate, we repeat our request to demand the maritime agency to re-export the materials immediately,” Shafik Marei, director of Lebanese customs, wrote in May 2016. Mr. Marei sent a second, similar letter a year later. The judiciary failed to respond to any of his pleas, the records suggested.
The conditions of storage were absolutely inappropriate for high-risk cargo – in fact, the explosion could happen anytime. For six years people of Beirut were unaware of the threat hidden in their own backyard. Warnings about the risk of detonation were ignored. Then, just after 6pm on Tuesday, a combination of ignorance, incompetence and negligence appears to have triggered a major disaster. Somehow, a fire started in the warehouse. The cause of the blaze is not known but it sparked a relatively small blast that sent a grey cloud of smoke into the air.
Less than in a minute later, a much bigger explosion – believed to be caused by the ignition of the ammonium nitrate – sent a shockwave across the city, destroying everything on its way. Dozens were killed and more than 5000 injured. The homes of some 300,000 residents are either totally collapsed, or faced serious damages which made them inhabitable.
The blast was so powerful that warehouse 12 is now a 140-meter wide crater. The force of the explosion even overturned a nearby cruise ship. Even the residents Lebanon cites, which are situated 100 kilometers from Beirut heard the sound of explosion.
Boris Prokoshev was serving as the captain of the MV Rhosus in 2013 when the ship—and its cargo of ammonium nitrate—became stranded at the Beirut port. On Wednesday he told that Tuesday’s explosion was the fault of Lebanese officials who did not let the vessel leave the port, despite the obvious danger its cargo posed.
Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, who was ship owner and is believed to be resident in Cyprus—abandoned the vessel in Beirut. Prokoshev also said Grechushkin pressured the crew to take on more cargo in Beirut though it was beyond the carrying capacity of the MV Rhosus. Prokoshev was paid some $1 million for the goods to be transported, but he failed to accomplish the contract terms by the decision to left high-risk cargo in Beirut and flew from Russia. There is still no verified information about his current residence. Prokoshev said he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin once a month asking for help, but received no reply. Russian officials did not want to interfere even in the time the owner – Russian citizen lived in Russian Khabarovsk city.
Anger is growing in Lebanon as more information emerges about the disaster. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday that the explosion was a “great national disaster” and promised that “all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”