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Beirut: five of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history

The tragedy in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 130 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, amazed the world with its scale and even sparked unfounded rumors of a nuclear outbreak. But explosions with hundreds of dead, destroying neighborhoods and entire cities, occur not only due to geopolitics, but also due to human errors and violations of security rules. Edition with the BBC named five large-scale non-nuclear disasters related to explosives.

Photo: Shutterstock

All of them occurred due to a fatal coincidence of circumstances and human mistakes - from an abandoned cigarette butt to a pilot's mistake, but at one time they gave rise to war rumors, and besides, they had serious political consequences.

Collision at Halifax (1917)

On December 6, 1917, at the entrance to the port of Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, two foreign ships met - the French military vessel Mont Blanc with explosives on board, sailing from New York to Bordeaux, and the Norwegian steamer Imo, which was carrying food to Belgium.

"Mont Blanc" entered the port, and "Imo" left it exceeding speed. Each of the crews of both ships believed that they should give way. As a result, the ships came together too close. At first, the collision was avoided, but then the "Imo" still crashed into a French ship, which led to a leak of benzene.

When the colliding ships were disengaged, a sheaf of sparks arose, benzene vapors ignited, and a fire that began on the ship led to an explosion of unprecedented force. The northern part of the city fell into ruins. Almost 2 thousand people died, including hundreds of children and adolescents in school buildings destroyed by the explosion. In total, up to 10 thousand people were injured. Shrapnel from broken glass injured the eyes of about 600 people, and many of the onlookers who watched the fire from the windows lost their sight.

Canadian historian Jack White believes that the tragedy in Halifax was the most powerful explosion in history before the appearance of nuclear weapons in five parameters: the number of victims, the force of the explosion, the radius of destruction, the volume of explosives and the total value of the destroyed property.

“We made our way through streets and paths littered with debris. Here and there were dead bodies on piles of black matter. Everything around became dark because of the smoke or was engulfed in fire of burning debris, ”recalled a doctor who arrived in the city on the day of the tragedy.

On the subject: Explosion in Beirut: where the mushroom cloud and red smoke came from

Immediately after the explosion, Halifax was flooded with rumors of German bombing and the actions of German spies. The helmsman of the Norwegian steamer, who was in the hospital, was arrested, and a “letter in German” was seized from him, which turned out to be Norwegian.

Long trials ruled that the crews of both ships bore equal blame for the collision.

Explosion at a factory in Oppau (1921)

The chemical plant of the BASF concern in Oppau, Germany in 1921 was the center for the production of explosives, poisonous gases and fertilizers - a mixture of sulfate and ammonium nitrate (the latter is also called ammonium nitrate - the very substance that exploded in Beirut).

Fertilizers were stored in a clay pit, where they inevitably solidified. It was too dangerous to send workers to the quarry - they could be buried alive. Therefore, saltpeter was taken out of the quarry using small explosions, despite the knowledge of its explosiveness.

On September 21, 1921, such an operation led to the detonation of the stock of fertilizers in the storage - 4,5 thousand tons of ammonium sulfate and nitrate. However, some experts believe that only a small part of these reserves could have exploded - about 10%.

The explosion killed, according to various sources, from 500 to 600 people, almost 2 thousand were injured, and three quarters of the working city were wiped out. The settlements located dozens of kilometers from the explosion site experienced significant destruction.

“Thirty-six hours later, the groans and cries of the wounded continue to be heard from the crater-like gaping hole at the site of the Badishe plant,” wrote the New York Times two days after the disaster.

But small explosions were carried out in Oppau almost 20 thousand times, so there are different versions of what went wrong in September 1921. Among the factors are the unusually hot summer, errors in the storage and processing of fertilizer, as well as an underestimation of the detonation capacity of ammonium nitrate.

Explosion in Port Chicago (1944)

On the evening of July 17, 1944, at the height of World War II, sailors loaded 10 kilotons of ammunition, including explosives and bombs, onto two US Navy transport ships in Port Chicago, California.

At some point, an explosion of incredible power occurred on one of the ships - more powerful than in the port of Beirut. He killed all 320 sailors on both ships. The explosion practically destroyed the town of Port Chicago. 390 people were injured. The bodies of the dead sailors were found a mile from the explosion site.

“All buildings are mutilated beyond recognition. All glasses are broken. I'm trying to type this story on the only typewriter left in town in a wreckage warehouse, ”wrote a San Francisco Chronicle reporter from the scene.

When the port resumed operations in early August, 258 black sailors refused to load ammunition for fear of another explosion, an event that has gone down in history as the Port Chicago Riot. They indicated that they had not received any training before being sent to load the explosives.

When the command announced that it viewed their actions as disobeying orders, 208 sailors returned to work. They were subsequently dismissed from the navy in disgrace.

The remaining 50 refused and appeared before a military court. They were sentenced to terms ranging from 8 to 15 years of hard labor. After two years, the term was reduced, and most were released. In 1999, President Bill Clinton formally pardoned the only survivor of 50 convicted sailors.

The investigation was never able to establish a specific cause of the explosion.

Explosion in Texas City (1947)

The Texas City Port tragedy is one of the worst fertilizer bombings ever seen (along with the Oppau and Beirut disasters). In terms of the number of victims, it remains the deadliest man-made disaster in US history.

On the subject: Destructive explosion in Beirut: 20 videos of the tragedy filmed by local residents

The explosion occurred on April 16, 1947 as a result of a fire on the French ship "Grancan" while loading fertilizers onto it. When the fire broke out, more than 2 thousand tons of ammonium nitrate were loaded on the ship.

The explosion on the Grankan caused a detonation on neighboring ships and a fire at oil refineries on the shore. The anchor of a French vessel weighing 1,5 tons was found more than three kilometers from the explosion site.

As a result of the disaster, more than 580 people died, including 27 professional firefighters and three volunteers, more than 3,5 thousand were injured.

Some eyewitnesses to the tragedy recalled that because of the "mushroom" from the explosion, they took it for a nuclear attack by the USSR.

Investigations have shown that a cigarette may have been the cause of the fire. Additional factors were violations of safety rules during storage of fertilizers and errors in extinguishing a fire at Grankan.

The victims of the blast filed the first class action lawsuit in US history against the federal government. The court dismissed the claim, but Congress passed a compensation bill.

Explosion in Tianjin (2015)

In terms of the number of victims, the explosion in the port of Tianjin, China, is one of the deadliest disasters involving industrial chemicals, although it is significantly inferior in the power of the explosion.

Two explosions with a difference of half a minute thundered on August 12, 2015. It all started with the burning of overheated containers in the sun in a local port, and the fire led to an explosion of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals in warehouses.

As a result, 173 people died, including 104 firefighters and 11 police officers. Also, 798 people were injured - mostly residents of apartment buildings near warehouses. Explosions and fire destroyed more than 12 thousand cars.

In 2016, a court in Tianjin sentenced the chairman of a logistics company that owned the warehouses to death, with a two-year deferral. He was found guilty of paying bribes for the illegal placement of toxic and explosive chemicals at the port.

Another 48 local officials and employees of private companies were convicted of bribery, abuse of office and abuse of power.

As ForumDaily wrote earlier:

Read also on ForumDaily:

'Lucky to be alive': a couple injured in an explosion in Beirut endured 9 hours of operations

Explosion in Beirut: where the mushroom cloud and red smoke came from

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Destructive explosion in Beirut: 20 videos of the tragedy filmed by local residents

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