At least 20 people were killed and nearly 80 injured when a fuel tank exploded in northern Lebanon on Sunday, burning crowds begging for gasoline in the crisis-stricken country.
The tragedy overwhelmed medical facilities and spurred the search for the missing, accumulating new misery in a nation already beset by an economic crisis and severe fuel shortages that have paralyzed hospitals and led to prolonged power outages.
“Our teams have transported 20 bodies … from the fuel tanker explosion” to hospitals, the Lebanese Red Cross said on Twitter.
He added that 79 other people were injured during the blast, which took place in al-Talil in the northern Akkar region.
The official National News Agency said a fuel container that the military had seized, as part of an effort to prevent suppliers from hoarding amid the shortage, had exploded.
He said the blast followed fights between “residents who gathered around the container to fill gasoline” overnight.
Marwa al Sheikh of Akkar took his 23-year-old brother, Ismail, at dawn to a Beirut burn center; one of only two such facilities in the country.
He had been turned away from most hospitals in the north that were unable to treat the burns he suffered on his arm and legs during the blast.
“At night, we were informed that the army was distributing gasoline … so people flocked to fill it in plastic containers … directly from the tank,” Marwa told AFP.
“Most of the people who were there said that someone had thrown a lighter on the floor” causing a fire that quickly led to the explosion, he added.
‘I can’t identify them’
George Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross told local media that first responders received reports of an explosion shortly before 2:00 am (2300 GMT).
He warned that the tragedy will increase pressure on the Geitawi hospital burn center in Beirut, and the country’s other specialized facility, in the northern city of Tripoli.
Yassine Metlej, a hospital employee in Akkar, said she had received at least seven bodies and dozens of burn victims.
“The bodies are so charred that we cannot identify them,” he told AFP.
“Some have lost their faces, others their arms.”
He said the hospital had to turn away most of the injured because it is not equipped to treat severe burns.
Tripoli’s Al-Salam Hospital burn center struggled with the influx of patients and had to turn many away.
The Geitawi burn center also had trouble keeping up.
“The burns are very serious … almost his entire body is burned,” said a doctor there.
Acting Health Minister Hamad Hassan instructed hospitals across the country “to receive the wounded … at the ministry’s expense and without reluctance.”
Lebanon, hit by a financial crisis rated by the World Bank as one of the worst on the planet since the 1850s, has been grappling with mounting poverty, a collapsing currency and severe fuel shortages.
The Lebanese military said on Saturday it seized thousands of liters of gasoline and diesel that distributors were storing at stations across the country.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day, while several hospitals recently warned that they may have to close due to power outages.
The American University Beirut Medical Center, the nation’s leading private hospital, said it would close Monday morning if it does not secure diesel to power generators.
He warned that this would cause hundreds of deaths.
Hundreds of Akkar residents flocked to the scene of the blast that was cordoned off by the army early Sunday, according to NNA.
Soldiers and rescuers were sweeping the area looking for missing people and survivors, NNA said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an investigation into the circumstances that led to the explosion.
The Akkar explosion comes less than two weeks after Lebanon marked the first anniversary of an explosion in the port of Beirut last summer that killed more than 200 people.
On August 4, 2020, a randomly stored stock of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded, leaving swaths of the capital resembling a war zone.
It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
In the year since then, no official has been held responsible for that explosion.
Despite the economic crisis, political disputes have delayed the formation of a new government after the last cabinet resigned after the port explosion.
International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but funds remain dependent on the formation of a new government to spearhead reforms and on restarting talks with the International Monetary Fund.