Forensic Architecture's analysis of the explosion at Beirut's port in August 4, 2020 (all images courtesy Forensic Architecture)

On August 4, a devastating blast shook Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut, killing over 200 people and wounding over 6,500. The massive explosion, caused by the detonation of a large depository of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at a warehouse in the city’s port since 2014, decimated large swathes of the city, including multiple galleries, museums, and art institutions. An examination by the Lebanese authorities has yet to yield any results or hold any officials accountable. As anger and frustration against the Lebanese government grow, the London-based research team Forensic Architecture (FA) has released the results of an investigation that details the events and failures that led to one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

FA launched its probe with an invitation from the Egyptian independent online publication Mada Masr. The research group used publicly available images and videos of the blast, among other open-source materials and documents, to create a 3D model of the explosion and a timeline that reconstructs the events of August 4.

Through spatial and architectural analysis of the images and videos, FA was able to locate the sources of the smoke plumes, fires, and explosions at the port, and to map the interior of the warehouse where 2,750 bags of ammonium nitrate were haphazardly stored.

The analysis found indications for the presence of flammable materials like fireworks and car tires in close proximity to the cache of ammonium nitrate. According to the investigation, these materials likely helped detonate about half of the 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate inside the warehouse. The analysis also found that many of the warehouse’s doors and windows were shut, creating hot temperature areas that brought the ammonium nitrate to its combustion point.

Gareth Collett, an explosives expert for the UN who consulted FA in its investigation, said that the arrangement of goods within the building was “the spatial layout of a makeshift bomb on the scale of a warehouse, awaiting detonation.”

The layout of bags of ammonium nitrate at a warehouse in the port of Beirut

“Ammonium Nitrate is extremely difficult to detonate by fire alone,” the UN expert said. “However, when confined and contaminated, this […] can lead to catastrophic detonation. It is sensitised by the presence of even the smallest quantity of additives and hence should be separated.”

The Lebanese government reportedly ignored multiple warnings about the unsafe storage of the chemical at the port. Such notices date back to December of 2014, two months after the shipment of ammonium nitrate was unloaded into the warehouse, FA said in one video. In 2015, a forensic expert commissioned by a Lebanese court to inspect the storage conditions of the ammonium nitrate reported that 70% of the bags were torn open, their content spilling out. Leaked images from February of 2020 that were published in the New York Times show that the bags remained ripped open.

FA added that the Lebanese authorities have failed to adhere to international codes of safe storage of ammonium nitrate. For example, British regulations limit stacks of ammonium nitrate to 300 tonnes. Based on such regulations, FA determined that the stacks that were stored in Bierut’s port should have been located at a safe distance of 1,750 meters (~5,741.47 feet) from the closest residential building.

A rendering from Forensic Architecture’s analysis of the smoke plumes that emanated from the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020

As Lebanese citizens continue to demand accountability from their leaders for the criminal negligence that led to the disaster, FA has made its model, geolocated videos, and source materials available for public use in this link.

In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Samaneh Moafi, a senior researcher at FA who was in charge of the investigation, expressed hope that the group’s work would be used in further research.

“Finding information on what exactly happened is a collective search,” Moafi said. “Our architectural tools are part of that collective effort.”

On November 13, ahead of the UN Security Briefing on Lebanon, the human rights organization Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) released an extensive report gathering all available facts relating to the explosion, including testimonials by witnesses and survivors. The report was submitted to the UN and key member states. In addition, the organization published a list of demands on behalf of over a thousand survivors of the explosion, asking for international support in their pursuit of justice, and demanding  “without delay, an independent and impartial fact-finding mission.”

“Justice cannot be delivered if the investigation remains solely with Lebanese authorities,” said
LAW’s Executive Director, Antonia Mulvey. “There is no reason that victims and their families should trust a system which, as the UN describes it — is deeply flawed.”

This call echos the general sentiment among Lebanese citizens, who have grown weary of the country’s disintegrated political structure and ubiquitous cronyism and corruption.

Speaking with Hyperallergic days after the explosion, Joumana Asseily, director and founder of Bierut’s Marfa’ Projects, described the political situation in Lebanon as “completely hopeless.” Asseily’s gallery, which was located about one-third of a mile from the explosion, was decimated.

“The government in Lebanon is nonexistent,” Asseily said. “We need fundamental change. The old guard and their cronies must go.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...