On August 4, an explosion shook the city of Beirut, killing over 200 and injuring more than 6,500. To reconstruct exactly what happened, forensic scientists were able to put together the event using photos and videos uploaded to social media.
Forensic Architecture was invited by the Egyptian online journal Mada Masr to review the available open source information that included photos, videos and documents to help provide an accurate 3D timeline and model of the event. This model, which includes the warehouse, clouds of smoke, initial explosion sphere, and parts of the city where the reference photos and videos were taken, has been made available on GitHub.
Starting with the very first image that was uploaded to social media on August 4, 2020 at. 1
Big explosion in #Beirut pic.twitter.com/UEBECAMTHz
– Nabih (@nabihbulos) August 4, 2020
They used visual markers to determine the location of the image and calculated the camera’s cone. They did this to determine the earliest sign of a smoke fume.
“Smoke joints are constantly being transformed and have a unique shape in every moment,” the forensic scientists said. “We modeled the cloud at this crucial stage to help sync other videos without a timestamp.”
Once forensic teams had this information, they were able to search for videos uploaded at similar times and analyze how the smoke flag evolved. They analyzed the color of the smoke as it darkened over a period of 10 minutes, indicating that the materials burning were altered.
Kl. 18:07, the researchers were able to determine that another fire had started, creating an extra cloud. Seconds later, the explosion obscures the entire storage area. However, due to the sheer 180 degree shape of the explosive explosion, they determined that this particular explosion had a single detonation point and were able to map this point by centering over the center of this explosion.
They then used the two feathers, the original smoke removal and the explosion tab to sync the remaining footage.
Images and video taken from a variety of locations from different angles allowed researchers to accurately reconstruct the event once first inserted correctly into the timeline. It’s a wealth of information that before the overweight social media would not have been available, and experts probably would have spent much longer trying to gather the incident with far less information, which probably resulted in a much less accurate framework for the event.
The researchers were also able to gather images from a combination of sources along with previous reports of poorly stored, flammable ammonium nitrate and other explosive materials such as tires and fireworks placed in the warehouse. Using these images, the team was able to accurately map the interior of the warehouse and insulate why they believe the explosion occurred.
While it is easy to blame social media for much of society’s misery, this study shows that public information from the crowd can be extremely valuable. Just one photo uploaded to Twitter provided a monumentally useful piece of information that enabled forensic experts to build a timeline and model for the event. This information was critical to understanding why the explosion happened and will hopefully be used to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.