Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2020.

Multiple Failures

Understanding the Beirut catastrophe through the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem


BY ANGELO VERZONI

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The magnitude of the explosion that rocked Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut is difficult to comprehend. Even in a country that was ravaged by a brutal civil war, from 1975 to 1990, the August 4 explosion ranked as the largest Lebanon has ever seen, according to the Associated Press. The blast has been attributed to a large amount of improperly stored ammonium nitrate.

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Over 170 people were killed and thousands more were injured by the explosion, which leveled buildings in a two-mile radius and could be felt hundreds of miles away. Perhaps more shocking, however, are the estimates of the number of people who are now homeless in the city as a result of the event—a reported 300,000, more than 10 percent of the city’s population. Damage estimates have also soared, with some as high as $15 billion, or roughly double the losses of the Camp Fire, the devastating 2017 California wildfire that razed entire towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

“I lived in Beirut throughout the civil war, but never did I face such an experience,” Nabil Dajani, a media studies professor at the American University of Beirut, told USA Today. “I cannot describe the damage I saw.”

RELATED: Watch and ; listen to an NFPA Podcast on the incident

The damage goes well beyond the physical destruction and the people killed and injured. Even before the blast, Lebanon had been gripped by a crippling economic crisis that by some estimates had reduced roughly half the country’s population to poverty. The government had long been accused of corruption and ineffectual administration, and political unrest was strident and widespread. The explosion was regarded by some observers as the final step toward national collapse and chaos. Protestors took to the streets demanding the ouster of the government, and on August 10 the entire cabinet resigned. What the next step would be was unclear, but according to the Washington Post, one economic forecast projected that the blast alone could wipe out 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

While the scope of the blast and the damage it inflicted are difficult to articulate, the factors leading up to the incident can be clearly defined and described. In interviews with NFPA Journal, safety experts from NFPA all used the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™ to illustrate and understand the breakdowns in safety that combined to cause this unprecedented catastrophe.

Multiple ecosystem failures

Introduced by NFPA in 2018, the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem emphasizes the many moving parts and entities involved in creating safe environments. Its eight components include government responsibility, development and use of current codes, referenced standards, investment in safety, a skilled workforce, code compliance, preparedness and emergency response, and an informed public.

Experts say multiple components clearly failed in Beirut, from an apparent lack of code compliance to lax government oversight.

“Unfortunately, in the Middle East, not every country understands that it’s not just about the building” and whether that building is up to code, said Anas Alzaid, NFPA’s representative to the Middle East and North Africa regions. “It’s part of a complete system that includes the government and the public, too. It goes back to the Ecosystem. Each one of those components is important.”

Government responsibility and a skilled workforce, in particular, seemed to play a role in the Beirut blast, Alzaid said.

Six years ago, Lebanese officials chose to house nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, confiscated from a cargo ship, in a warehouse in the city’s port. The chemical is used in fertilizer and explosives and is typically stored in powder form, where it can become destabilized when exposed to a heat source. The dense development of Beirut, including apartment complexes, shops, schools, and office buildings, directly abuts the city’s port facilities, and warnings from some officials about the risk posed by the nearby stockpile of ammonium nitrate seemed to fall on deaf ears. “They did a lot of paperwork ... to cover themselves, but no one took action to protect the population,” a Lebanese human rights activist told CBC News a day after the explosion.

“Six million pounds of a dangerous material like that sitting in a dynamic environment like a port for six years is an accident waiting to happen,” Alzaid said. “And it happened.”

The fire that ultimately triggered the explosion was reportedly sparked by a worker carrying out unpermitted hot work—a commonly seen breakdown in the skilled workforce component of the Ecosystem, even in more developed nations such as the United States.

The question of what codes, if any, were adhered to when storing the ammonium nitrate also arose after the blast, reflecting failures in either the development and use of current codes or the code compliance components of the Ecosystem.

“Clearly, there should have been increased safeguards in the storage of that confiscated ammonium nitrate,” said Guy Colonna, an engineering director and hazardous materials expert at NFPA.

More from Guy Colonna on the science of ammonium nitrate.

Following the requirements found in NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, which includes a chapter dedicated to the safe handling and storage of ammonium nitrate, “you would have certain kinds of construction associated with the warehousing, you wouldn’t have incompatible materials like oils and greases because that causes oxidizers [like ammonium nitrate] to self-react, and the other thing that would be important is there would be separation distances,” Colonna said. “Separation distances from the warehouse to adjacent structures but also to populated areas. From what we can see in the aftermath of this incident, those separation distances probably didn’t exist.”

Learn more about the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem at nfpa.org/ecosystem

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images