One of the most horrific elements of the devastating August 4 bombing in Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and injured more than 6,500, was that it could have been easily prevented. Using videos of the event shared on social media, forensic scientists have been able to reconstruct exactly what happened, including the shocking negligence that led to the tragedy.
Before everyone documented the world around them using smartphones and social media, it was a longer and more complicated process to determine what caused events like the Beirut explosion. Forensic scientists may have had an occasional video from a traffic or security camera that allowed them to play back and dissect events like this, but for the most part, they had to rely on a detailed analysis of the after-effects, including the resulting waste and damage, and couples it then with extensive knowledge of explosives to determine the exact cause.
Minutes after the August 4 explosion, those who recorded the original stock fire and captured the ensuing explosion on their smartphones began sharing their videos on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. It did not take long for people all over the world to witness what had happened, and these videos eventually became a crucial tool for experts at a research team at the University of London, Forensic architecture, to reconstruct what caused the huge explosion that had the same yield as nearly 1.5 kilotons of TNT.
Their findings are shared in this 12-minute video using random videos captured all over the city to reconstruct everything from the smoke remover that first began rising from the warehouse to the explosion itself. Unfortunately, it only served to confirm what many suspected had happened here. Six years earlier, in October 2014, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate (a high-nitrogen fertilizer that also acts as an ingredient in explosives used in mining) was unloaded at the docks in Beirut and stored in a nearby warehouse. Over the years, several reports of the safety hazard of the material stored there warned, including an alarming report by a forensic chemical expert in February 2015, which showed that 70% of the nearly 3,000 bags containing ammonium nitrate had been torn up. with the crystalline material spilling out.
News reports and photos taken inside the building before the incident also showed that the warehouse, despite containing thousands of tonnes of explosive material, was also used to store 23 tonnes of fireworks, over 1,000 rubber car tires and five rolls of slowly burning detonating wire. According to forensic scientists and engineering experts, the contents of the warehouse, including how and where the various materials were stored, essentially created a makeshift bomb waiting to go off.
As part of the study, the 3D models developed by Forensic Architecture, including the warehouse, the smoke clouds, the initial explosion sphere, and parts of the city of Beirut that describe where several reference videos have been taken, have been made available for download on GitHub. At this point, there is no doubt as to why the Beirut explosion was as severe as it was, but this research will hopefully contribute to new guidelines for the safe handling and storage of these types of materials as well as new methods of accountability. Hopefully when red flags are raised in the future, there is subsequent action to prevent incidents like this from ever happening again.