BEIRUT—The 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate sailed into the city nearly seven years ago. The ship’s captain at the time called it a “powder keg.”

The cargo, a chemical compound used for blasting mines and building car bombs, was seized when the ship carrying it was found unseaworthy and its owner failed to pay certain fees, according to the ship’s captain and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global trade union. It ended up in a warehouse as Lebanese officials, lawyers, judges and a Russian shipper bickered over what to do next.

Over the next three years, attempts to get rid of the cargo became mired in the country’s bureaucracy, according to correspondence between Lebanese officials. Port officials didn’t heed court orders to safely store the ammonium nitrate, but instead sought permission to unload the chemicals, according to court documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Other officials simply stopped responding to proposals.

At one point, the country’s Court of Urgent Matters refused to grant permission to sell or re-export the ammonium nitrate. A security division asked that the ship be moved for safety, but it remained in port. The ship’s crew was stranded on the boat, which had a leak, for months without pay.

On Tuesday, firefighters converged on Beirut’s main port to battle flames and smoke pouring from the windows of Warehouse 12, the cause of which is still unknown. As small pops echoed through the air, they worked with hammers and pliers to pry loose the steel doors that held the ammonium nitrate.

Nearly 15 minutes after the firefighters arrived, they were engulfed in one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history. It tossed bodies, trees and cars through the air, killing more than 150 people and injuring 5,000 more, laying waste to Beirut’s port and much of its commercial district.

Blast Power

Arms-control experts estimate the size of the Beirut explosion was larger than some common bombs used in airstrikes, but smaller than WWII atomic weapons.

Strength of explosions, equivalency in TNT

2.3 tons

11 tons

GBU28 bomb

GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB)

300-700 tons

explosion in Beirut

(estimate)

15 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Hiroshima

100 kilotons

W-76 submarine

nuclear warhead

20 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Nagasaki

Strength of explosions, equivalency in TNT

2.3 tons

11 tons

GBU-28 bomb

GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB)

300-700 tons

explosion in Beirut

(estimate)

15 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Hiroshima

100 kilotons

W-76 submarine

nuclear warhead

20 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Nagasaki

Strength of explosions, equivalency in TNT

2.3 tons

11 tons

300-700 tons

GBU-28 bomb

GBU-43 Massive

Ordnance Air

Blast (MOAB)

explosion in Beirut

(estimate)

15 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Hiroshima

100 kilotons

W-76 submarine

nuclear warhead

20 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Nagasaki

Strength of explosions, equivalency in TNT

11 tons

2.3 tons

GBU-43 Massive

Ordnance Air

Blast (MOAB)

GBU-28 bomb

300-700 tons

explosion in Beirut

(estimate)

15 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Hiroshima

20 kilotons

atomic bomb dropped

on Nagasaki

100 kilotons

W-76 submarine

nuclear warhead

Sources: Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury Insitute (TNT equivalents); U.S. Air Force (GBU-28, MOAB, Hiroshima, Nagasaki); Federation of American Scientists (W-76)

The blast was the culmination of a series of crises that have brought the country to its knees. Lebanon faces an unraveling economy, an accelerating outbreak of the coronavirus, and recurrent protests against government corruption and deepening poverty. Decades of financial mismanagement led the country to default earlier this year on billions in loans from international investors. Months of talks about a bailout with the International Monetary Fund have gone nowhere.

“What happened is a physical manifestation of the woes that Lebanon is suffering from,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a nonpartisan London-based think tank. “Lebanon is entering one of the bleakest eras in its modern history.”

Prices on imports, the bulk of Lebanon’s goods, have soared. People are unable to pay for meat and bread. Power outages, which have long been a fact of life in Lebanon, have meant some people have had as little as two hours of reliable power each day. Many people rely on generators to keep their power going, but the bills for the fuel to keep them running 18 to 20 hours a day are rising.

Public anger is boiling over. Late Thursday, protesters and security forces clashed in downtown Beirut. Some activists carried shields and charged riot police, who responded with tear gas.

Makrouhy Yerganian, 74, sorted through her possessions amid the ruins of her house in Beirut. The blast killed her 91-year-old uncle, who was in the kitchen.

Photo: SAm Tarling for The Wall Street Journal

The family of Chady Abu Chacra, a 30-year-old killed in the explosion, mourned beside his coffin.

Photo: SAm Tarling for The Wall Street Journal

Bahaa Hariri, brother of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the eldest son of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister killed by a truck bomb in 2005, said it was time for the government to step down and pave the way for an independent international investigation of the blast.

“This is utter carelessness,” he said. “It’s appalling. We need to get to the truth.”

The Lebanese government said it has taken steps to assuage the public. Officials have detained 19 Beirut port officials and said that all the culprits will be held accountable. The government has ordered a freeze on the assets of seven officials, including Badri Daher, the head of Lebanon’s customs authority, and Hassan Koraytem, the Beirut port’s general manager.


Photos: Explosion in Lebanon’s Capital Sparks Death and Destruction

The blast at Beirut’s port killed at least 154 people and injured thousands in the Mediterranean city

 
 
A man surveys the ruins of Beirut’s port from the window of a house that was damaged in Tuesday’s explosion.
Sam Tarling for The Wall Street Journal
1 of 13

In a response to a request for comment, Mr. Daher sent the Journal a document he had transferred to Lebanon’s Central Bank detailing his bank accounts, as part of anti-money-laundering legislation. Mr. Koraytem couldn’t be reached for comment.

Even before arriving in Lebanon, in 2013, the vessel carrying the volatile cargo had a history of detentions, poor maintenance and ownership controversies. Three months before it was held in Beirut, it had been detained for 13 days by Spanish authorities because of faulty radio and fire-safety equipment.

When Captain Boris Prokoshev took over the ship, called the Rhosus, in the fall of 2013, he found a broken diesel generator and water leakages on the deck. “It had seen better days,” he said in an interview.

“This was an old, substandard ship with poor maintenance and a substandard owner,” said Olga Ananina, a Russia-based inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who reviewed the case at the time and worked to help the Rhosus crew. “It was a big risk for such a ship to carry such a dangerous cargo.”

Chain Reaction

Thousands of one-metric-ton bags of ammonium nitrate were stored on the floor of a port warehouse in Beirut for several years before this week’s devastating explosion.

Approximate percentage use of ammonium nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as fertilizer in farming. It is also used to make explosives used in mining.

Fertilizers

Explosives

78%

22%

Stored in a dry place, pure ammonium nitrate is safe.

It becomes more dangerous if it is mixed with other products or contaminated with impurities and subjected to heat:

Exposed to heat of up to 446 °F, it decomposes non-explosively, producing mainly nitrogen, water vapor

and oxygen.

1

Nitrogen

446 °F

Water

vapor

Oxygen

Ammonia

Nitrogen

dioxide

Exposed to higher heat, it detonates—decomposing explosively as the chemical reaction moves through the substance faster than the speed of sound—producing a large volume of gas and a shockwave.

2

500-572 °F

The orange-red hue seen in the cloud that billowed over Beirut after Tuesday’s blast stemmed from ammonia and nitrogen dioxide gases also produced by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate.

Approximate percentage use of ammonium nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as fertilizer in farming. It is also used to make explosives used in mining.

Fertilizers

Explosives

78%

22%

Stored in a dry place, pure ammonium nitrate is safe.

It becomes more dangerous if it is mixed with other products or contaminated with impurities and subjected to heat:

Exposed to heat of up to 446 °F, it decomposes non-explosively, producing mainly nitrogen, water vapor

and oxygen.

1

Nitrogen

446 °F

Water

vapor

Oxygen

Ammonia

Nitrogen

dioxide

Exposed to higher heat, it detonates—decomposing explosively as the chemical reaction moves through the substance faster than the speed of sound—producing a large volume of gas and a shockwave.

2

500-572 °F

The orange-red hue seen in the cloud that billowed over Beirut after Tuesday’s blast stemmed from ammonia and nitrogen dioxide gases also produced by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate.

Approximate percentage use of ammonium nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as fertilizer in farming. It is also used to make explosives used in mining.

Fertilizers

Explosives

78%

22%

Stored in a dry place, pure ammonium nitrate is safe.

It becomes more dangerous if it is mixed with other products or contaminated with impurities and subjected to heat:

Exposed to heat of up to 446 °F, it decomposes non-explosively, producing mainly nitrogen, water vapor and oxygen.

Nitrogen

1

Water

vapor

446 °F

Oxygen

Ammonia

Nitrogen

dioxide

Exposed to higher heat, it detonates—decomposing explosively as the chemical reaction moves through the substance faster than the speed of sound—producing a large volume of gas and a shockwave.

2

500-572 °F

The orange-red hue seen in the cloud that billowed over Beirut after Tuesday’s blast stemmed from ammonia and nitrogen dioxide gases also produced by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate.

Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as fertilizer in farming. It is also used to make explosives used in mining.

Approximate percentage use of ammonium nitrate

Fertilizers

Explosives

78%

22%

Stored in a dry place, pure ammonium nitrate is safe.

It becomes more dangerous if it is mixed with other products or contaminated with impurities and subjected to heat:

Exposed to heat of up to 446 °F, it decomposes non-explosively, producing mainly nitrogen, water vapor and oxygen.

1

Nitrogen

Water

vapor

446 °F

Oxygen

Ammonia

Nitrogen

dioxide

Exposed to higher heat, it detonates—decomposing explosively as the chemical reaction moves through the substance faster than the speed of sound—producing a large volume of gas and a shockwave.

2

500-572 °F

The orange-red hue seen in the cloud that billowed over Beirut after Tuesday’s blast stemmed from ammonia and nitrogen dioxide gases also produced by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate.

Source: Compound Interest

The European Union database Equasis says the Rhosus was being managed by a Bulgarian company, whose director said that he has never owned it and suggested that the real owner must have falsified documents and used his company’s name. The Bulgarian Transport Ministry said that according to its records the last known owner was Teto Shipping.

The company is controlled by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman based in Cyprus. Mr. Grechushkin didn’t return a request for comment.

After picking up its cargo in the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia, the ship sailed for the port of Beira, Mozambique. But Mr. Grechushkin, the Rhosus’s owner, told the captain that he had no money to fund the journey through the Suez Canal to Africa so the ship would have to pick up extra cargo in Beirut, Mr. Prokoshev said.

Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a firm that makes commercial explosives in Mozambique, said it had placed the cargo’s order for ammonium nitrate from a Georgia-based company called Savaro, but the shipment was never paid for as it wasn’t delivered.

On Thursday, Cyprus police, acting on behalf of Interpol’s Lebanon bureau, asked Mr. Grechushkin about the circumstances of the ship’s grounding, said spokesman Stelios Stylianou. He said the vessel’s owner isn’t under formal investigation in Cyprus and declined to elaborate further.

Once in Beirut, the ship began to load road vehicles to pick up the extra cash. But Lebanese authorities refused to clear it, saying that the ship wouldn’t be able to carry the heavy new load, according to the captain and Ms. Ananina, the official with the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The officials encountered other technical violations and detained the ship.

Mr. Grechushkin didn’t send replacement sailors and the crew, consisting of Russian and Ukrainian citizens, was stranded on the ship, the captain and Ms. Ananina said.

The sailors sent dozens of appeals to Lebanese and Russian officials, as well as to international maritime organizations and the Red Cross. Standing on the deck one day, the sailors held a placard in English saying “Lebaneses release us home.”

“My wife starves [because] I cannot transmit money to her,” Mr. Prokoshev wrote in a letter to the Beirut court in 2014. He said he was owed nearly $32,000 in wages. The crew still hasn’t been paid, Ms. Ananina said.

Another worry for Mr. Prokoshev was the dangerous cargo the ship was still carrying. “We were hostages, stranded for months, without pay and we had a dangerous cargo,” he said. “We’ve been living on a powder keg.”

Later that year, a Lebanese court granted permission for the crew to disembark, given the dangerous cargo, and authorities discharged the cargo to the port’s warehouses, according to a letter by lawyers for Mr. Prokoshev and the ship’s creditors.

Boris Prokoshev, captain of the Rhosus, at right, next to a freight hold loaded with ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut in summer 2014.

Photo: boris musinchak/Reuters

Proposals for the cargo started soon after the ship arrived in Beirut. Chafic Merhi, the customs chief at the time, asked permission from the Court of Urgent Matters for re-export or sale of the ammonium nitrate, according to court documents.

Mr. Merhi couldn’t be reached for comment.

In June 2014, the court responded. It refused to grant permission for re-export or sale, and ordered the port authority to float the vessel and safely store the cargo.

Lebanese customs directors continued to send letters to judicial authorities seeking to get rid of the merchandise. Their proposals: export the goods, or sell to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company.

The court didn’t respond to subsequent requests after its 2014 ruling. The purview of safely moving and transporting the ammonium nitrate is that of Lebanon’s military and the ministry of public works.

The anti-drugs and money-laundering division asked the vessel to be moved, citing concerns for the safety of port workers, according to documents.

The vessel stayed on in the Beirut port. Mr. Prokoshev, the captain, said the ship had a hole in its forepeak, a storage compartment, which the sailors pumped periodically. When they abandoned the vessel and the cargo was moved to the warehouse, the water accumulated and it sank, he said.

Meanwhile, concern mounted over the ammonium nitrate. In a December 2017 letter, reviewed by the Journal, Mr. Daher, head of Lebanon’s customs, warned a judge of “the extreme danger that these goods remain in the warehouse under inappropriate weather conditions.” A solution should be found “in order to preserve the safety of the port and its workers,” he said.

Customs officials who tried to unlock the cargo’s impasse are now being targeted by authorities seeking to establish who is responsible for the catastrophe. On Thursday, the government ordered the freeze of the accounts held by Mr. Daher, the customs chief, and his predecessor Mr. Merhi. On Friday Mr. Merhi was arrested and placed in preliminary detention, according to a government source familiar with the investigation.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com, Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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