The Port of Beirut was destroyed by an explosion of ammonium nitrate on 4 August. Why it happened is a complex tale with the abandoned cargo ship M/V Rhosus at its centre.
Satellite photos have identified the carcass of the Moldovan-flagged M/V Rhosus, lying on its side, sunk, in the Port of Beirut blast on 4 August.
Truth be known, its condition can scarcely be said to have worsened. Leaking, more rust than paint, the M/V Rhosus was unfit to carry anything, let alone 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. But in a cruel twist of fate, it was in apparent recognition of this that the Lebanese authorities laid the groundwork for the catastrophic explosion which would claim the lives of at least 170 people, injure thousands and cause severe damage in the port and city.
Another maritime casualty of the explosion was the cruise vessel Orient Queen, which listed and sank at its mooring alongside; two crew members were killed and seven others were wounded; however no passengers were on board at the time.
CMA CGM reported that crew from its container ship Lyra, moored 1.5 km from the explosion epicentre, were unharmed, and the ship was undamaged. However, at least one employee was killed in the blast. Nevertheless, CMA CGM vessels returned to the port only a few days later, with a service update indicating that “the operational situation in the port of Beirut is now back to normal,” and damage to port infrastructure was “less serious than what could be expected,” with vessel Nicolas Delmas making a successful call on 10 August.
"The operational situation in the port of Beirut is now back to normal"
The destruction caused by the chemical explosion (Credit: Shutterstock)
As flag states go, Moldova is not highly regarded. It is the fourth-from-worst performer on the Paris MoU blacklist, and considered “medium to high risk” as of December 2019. In the three-year period prior to the 2019 list, 381 port state control inspections on Moldovan-flagged ships led to 57 detentions.
In the face of intense scrutiny from news agencies and casual, non-industry observers, M/V Rhosus was an embarrassment to the maritime business. But the ancient, unseaworthy ship was never intended to be at the Port of Beirut. Rather, it suffered a mechanical fault en route from Greece to Mozambique which prevented it from travelling to its destination and offloading its cargo. The detour would be its undoing, as the crew, probably expecting a quick fix-up, found their vessel impounded by port state control authorities in 2013.
After various legal disputes, Interfleet Shipmanagement, the vessel owner, abandoned Rhosus and its eight crew. According to the legal publication The Arrest News, dated October 2015, the charterer, too, “lost interest in the cargo”. Legal appeals began to repatriate the seafarers, who, after suffering with no wages, heat, power or communications access, and almost no provisions to speak of, finally returned home a year later.
Having decided the ship could not reliably serve as floating storage for the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – “owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel,” The Arrest News noted – its cargo was unloaded in September 2014, and stored there on the assumption that a buyer would be found. “The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal,” the 2015 report concluded.
That never happened.
It appears that at some point, a decision was made to weld holes in the warehouse shut – to keep people out – and it was sparks from this procedure, according to reports from Lebanese news service LVC International, that caused the explosion.
A litany of poor decisions
The Lebanese government has collapsed in the wake of the disaster, which was the result of endemic corruption “bigger than the state”, according to ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned on 10 August. He described the negligence leading up to the explosion as a “crime,” and pledged to "fight the battle for change alongside [Lebanon’s people].”
But it is not straightforward to lay blame on any one party. Even in its state of neglect, M/V Rhosus was technically doing nothing illegal by transporting ammonium nitrate.
Beirut port authorities made a pragmatic decision to impound an unseaworthy vessel, called a “floating bomb” by a crew member during their period of abandonment.
The decision to finally secure its dangerous cargo was made in the interests of safety; and to curtail the opportunity for theft. As it happened, disaster struck. As in the case of so many catastrophic events, many things had to go wrong in sequence; to avoid it, only one would have to go right.
Charlie Bartlett is a maritime writer.