Rapid Response: Beirut blast serves as stark reminder of the power of energetic materials

Firefighters must plan the tactical needs for all high-hazard environments in their response area


What happened

On Aug. 4, an explosion of epic proportions rocked Beirut, Lebanon, killing more than 100 people and injuring thousands. At least 10 firefighters are missing.

Initial reports indicate a warehouse or a ship in the port area housing fireworks and other materials was on fire. A series of explosions rocked the capital city, culminating in what appears to be the largest apparently non-nuclear explosion ever witnessed. Clearly, fireworks would not have produced the vertical lift or shockwave witnessed in the many stunning social media videos that captured the moment of the blast.

Pictures of the aftermath show block after block of devastation. The scene has been described as “apocalyptic.”

The director of the general security directorate reportedly said the blast was caused by confiscated "high explosive materials." ABC News reports that Lebanon’s Prime Minister said an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years. The observed volume, vertical lift and shockwave support the theory that high-order explosives were involved. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the Beirut explosion measured an astonishing 3.3 on the Richter scale. (More on the Richter scale below.)

While the injury and death toll continues to rise and the dust settles, it will take days or weeks to obtain an accurate accounting of casualties.

Of the missing firefighters, the city’s governor said, “There was a fire, the [firefighters] came to put it out, then the explosion happened, and they went missing. We are looking for them.” FireRescue1 will continue to follow news of the Beirut firefighters.

Why it’s significant

Firefighters are constantly confronted by the unknown. The Beirut explosion brings to mind another international port explosion at Tianjin, China in 2015. That ammonium nitrate explosion registered a magnitude 2.3 on the Richter scale, and resulted in 165 fatalities, 104 of which were firefighters. The Tianjin explosion involved hydrogen cyanide storage, with a primary and secondary explosion – part of the domino effect commonly seen in industrial events.

The United States is no stranger to massive explosive events. The Beirut videos evoke memories of the Texas City (1947) ammonium nitrate explosion that resulted in a cascade of disasters that killed 581 people, the West, Texas (2013), fertilizer plant fire and explosion, and even the domestic terror attack at the Murrah Federal Building (1995) in downtown Oklahoma City.

For comparison’s sake, the West, Texas, explosion measured 2.1 on the Richter scale, and killed 14, including 11 firefighters. The Murrah Federal Building (1995) blast measured 3.2 on the Richter scale, the closest magnitude relation to the Beirut incident, and killed 168, injured more than 650 and damaged over 300 buildings.

While I worked as the emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia, a smaller magnitude explosion occurred in 2010 at our Allegany Ballistics Laboratory (ABL), a rocket manufacturing facility. While Mineral County only provided support to the ABL safety teams, the opportunities for catastrophe at any facility working with volatile materials is high. While there were two minor injuries in the 2010 incident, the ABL site has a long record of deadly explosive events – an August 1981 explosion killed two, a 1963 explosion killed three, and a 1961 explosion killed nine.

I spoke with Wes Foor, who served as the safety director for ABL at the time of the 2010 explosion. (Foor is currently retired and serving as deputy chief for the Rawlings (Maryland) Volunteer Fire Department.) Reflecting on the early-1900’s Galveston ammonium nitrate explosion that wiped out half the town, Chief Foor commented, “It is absolutely critical that the fire department know what’s in these buildings. Certainly easier said than done in a port environment, but critical no less.” Commenting on the extensive damage witnessed in Beirut, Foor added that this was, “a stark reminder of the power of energetic materials, confined or not.”

The 2010 ABL explosion registered on the Richter scale, but nothing like the 3.3 magnitude from the Beirut explosion. I toured the 2010 ABL site after the response, assisting with documenting the external explosion damage, which was limited due to the bunker-style mixing building the explosion occurred in. The Beirut explosion appears to have occurred in a dense industrial area of the port, originating from a location clearly not protected by bunkered facilities.

Key takeaways

Port environments and storage facilities can be deathtraps. The unknown nature of the constantly rotating inventory makes these environments an operating and preplanning nightmare.

While it is still very early, the Beirut experience can be captured in one simple directive: Always expect the unexpected. Our fire service mission will never lend itself to a non-threat operating environment. There are, however, always preventative and preparatory steps we can take to protect our firefighters:

  • Understand tactical considerations for all high-hazard environments in your response area
  • Preplanning is vital for any firefighter, regardless of the occupancy type or location. Know what’s in your response area.
  • Preplanning provides the basis for awareness, but firefighters must study and be aware of the chemical relationships and reactivity of materials they may be called to deal with. Water is not always the answer!
  • High-order explosive situations are not something the fire service is going to control. We can prepare, mitigate and respond; however, we must be prepared to react to the damage and carnage in an effort that will take months, if not years, to recover from.
  • Like we use in radioactive events, time/distance/shielding comes to mind. Limit your time on target, increase the distance (protective zone) around unstable environments, and shield yourself from the potentially explosive effects.

What’s next

A massive search and rescue the likes of which we have not seen recently in a large city is underway. President Trump has promised assistance to Lebanon, which will undoubtedly result in an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) mission response from the United States. Teams will systematically search the city for casualties.

While politicians have already proclaimed “those responsible will be held accountable,” a thorough and objective investigation will ultimately provide the background to build on lessons learned.

Bonus: Understanding the Richter scale

The USGS details the Richter scale and understanding the exponential nature of earthquake magnitude (emphasis added): “The Richter magnitude scale was developed in 1935 by Charles F. Richter of the California Institute of Technology as a mathematical device to compare the size of earthquakes. The magnitude of an earthquake is determined from the logarithm of the amplitude of waves recorded by seismographs. Adjustments are included for the variation in the distance between the various seismographs and the epicenter of the earthquakes. On the Richter Scale, magnitude is expressed in whole numbers and decimal fractions. For example, a magnitude 5.3 might be computed for a moderate earthquake, and a strong earthquake might be rated as magnitude 6.3. Because of the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude; as an estimate of energy, each whole number step in the magnitude scale corresponds to the release of about 31 times more energy than the amount associated with the preceding whole number value.”

Understanding the tenfold jump between whole number increases in magnitude puts into perspective the significant difference between the incidents in West, Texas, and China and those in Oklahoma City and Beirut.

  • West, Texas: 2.1
  • Tianjin, China: 2.3
  • Oklahoma City, Okla.: 3.2
  • Beirut, Lebanon: 3.3

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