THMG253 – Lebanon Explosion Case Study – 9/11/01

Using all available information we dissect what led up to the mega-explosion at the Port of Beirut. Take a listen and learn from the past.

Also, take a moment to remember the 343 FDNY, 23 NYPD, 37 PAPD officers and the 2 EMS personnel that perished 19 years ago today.

Show Notes:

3:25 Background on Lebanon

  • This is being recorded on September 10th, 2020. It’s been a little bit over a month since there was a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion that took place on August 4th, leveled huge portions of the city and took out around 190 lives. with almost 6,500 injuries reported.
  • About 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate ended up detonating that day. That’s the equivalent of 1.1 to 3.5 kiloton bomb. Put that into perspective we’re looking at about one-tenth the power of the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. 

4:35 Background On Texas Explosions

  • Back on April 17th, 2013, in West Texas Texas there was also an explosion of ammonium nitrate in a storage facility that had a 10 tons of TNT. That would be about 100X less powerful than the explosion that happened in Beirut.
  • Only other explosion that we would even be able to come close was the Texas City Disaster (April 16th, 1947 in the port of Texas City). This was one of the top 10 explosions in the history of mankind outside of a nuclear explosion.. 
  • In fact, If we look at the list of accidental explosions in the world, Texas City actually will rank 8th.
  • The largest explosion was the Halifax explosion of December 6th, 1917. But that involved a military ship with high amounts of explosives and ranked about 2.9 kilotons of TNT equivalent.

6:30 The Ammonium Nitrate Connection

  • In fact, if we examine some of the largest explosions of the non-nuclear type it is amazing how much of them pop up from ammonium nitrate. Of the top 10 explosions, five of these occur with ammonium nitrate listed as a key source to the explosion.  
  • August 12th, 2015 ammonium nitrate was a key ingredient to a massive explosion in one of the ports of China. In 1988 in Henderson,  Nevada, an explosion of nine kilotons of TNT was caused by ammonium perchlorate.

9:30 Dissecting Lebanon Explosion

  • If under normal conditions it is a pretty stable product, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of stress to turn ammonium nitrate into something that is potentially explosive
  • It all started back on September 27th, 2013 when a cargo ship was carrying approximately 27 hundred tons of ammonium nitrate. In route from one destination to another, it’s believed that there were mechanical problems with the boat and the boat had to stop at the Port of Beirut for repairs. There are also some other reports that the ship just didn’t have enough money to keep going (that have not been confirmed)
  • At the port of Beirut, the boat decided to take on some extra cargo and heavy machinery. It was taken and placed on board the boat and actually placed over the cargo space of where the ammonium nitrate was being stored.
  • From this point, the abandoned boat was seized by the port and the cargo was brought to shore and placed in what was known as Warehouse 12. where it remains absolutely untouched.
  • Like so many disasters that have taken place throughout the past couple hundred years, it never seems to be just one thing that fails, but rather a series of events that lead to a devastating explosion
  • Over the course of those six years, other things started being stored in Warehouse 12 along with the ammonium nitrate. Records indicate that there were barrels of oil, kerosene, hydrochloric acid, and many other chemicals

13:00 How Ammonium Nitrate Explodes

  • Ammonium nitrate becomes explosive in really two ways. The first is we can allow it to reach a self-sustained decomposition temperature (About 300 degrees Celsius/ 527 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • This is what ended up causing the massive ship explosion in the Texas City Port back in the 20s. The ship was on fire and the massive amount of heat and pressure that was built up within the ship ended up causing the ammonia nitrate to detonate.
  • When ammonium nitrate is heated to that level it becomes very very very shock-sensitive. it can actually detonate on its own at about 80 atmospheres of pressure. and that’s all by itself. If you add in contaminants this can be reduced to 20 atmospheres. This gives you an idea of just how unstable ammonium nitrate becomes when it is in the presence of a contaminant.

15:00 Contaminants For Ammonium Nitrate

  • Strong oxidizer and oxidizers don’t play well with organic material. In fact, the whole way we create an explosion like an IED or explosive material is the take an oxidizer and combined it with a fuel ie. organic material.
  • We know heating it up makes it more unstable and we know organic contaminants make it more unstable. The Warehouse was about 5 miles of fuse on a wooden spool as well as about  15 Tons of fireworks.

19:35 New York Times Article Review

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