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Death Toll Rises in Beirut As Rescue Efforts Continue After Explosion

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is this aerial footage coming out of Beirut now. The footage shows above the port where that massive explosion tore through the city. And all you can see is the remains of the port. The surrounding neighborhood's just a wasteland now littered with destroyed buildings and crushed vehicles. The death toll is now at least 137 lives lost. More than 5,000 people are wounded. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is covering this for us. Good morning, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What's the latest you can tell us about search and rescue operations? What's happening on the ground?

SHERLOCK: Well, Rachel, as you were describing there, you know, the damage from this explosion is catastrophic. There are miles of smashed buildings. And officials are estimating that hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless. And, you know - so you know, people are still kind of reeling from this. They're trying to come to terms with it. Aid groups are on the ground. And the rescue effort is ongoing. And then there's also hundreds of regular Lebanese people who - some of whom have lost their own homes. And they're rallying to try to help get the worst affected out, to try to clear the debris from the city. There's a terrible economic crisis already in Lebanon.

And there were these Facebook groups set up that were for Lebanese people to barter goods. Now those groups are being used to coordinate help to the worst affected areas. And just to give you a sense of what they're up against, the landlord of our bureau in Beirut, which was also damaged, is an architect that restores these beautiful traditional Lebanese homes. He watched much of his life's work go - be destroyed in the blink of an eye. And he said, you know, Lebanese are used to damage from the country's 15 years of civil war. But this destruction was like the destruction of all of the civil war in a single moment.

MARTIN: Wow. Is there any more information about how this happened?

SHERLOCK: Well, a lot of people when they think of Beirut, they think of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or the sporadic conflict with Israel. And it will be hard to know for sure what has happened until there've been, you know, results of a full investigation. But initial responses from Lebanese officials suggest that this might actually have been a terrible, massive accident. They're briefing that the explosion was caused by the eruption of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, which was used for fertilizers and bombs. And they say it was improperly stored for years in a warehouse at the port and that a separate, smaller fire might've ignited it.

It seems the ammonium nitrate may actually have come on a ship that made an unscheduled stop at the Beirut port in 2013 because of technical difficulties. And then it was abandoned by the Russian businessman who leased it. Apparently, customs officials appealed six times to Lebanese courts for guidance on what to do and warned of the dangers of keeping, you know, this valuable substance in a crowded city.

MARTIN: Wow.

SHERLOCK: Local media is saying that the prime minister's office might even have been made aware of this last year. So potentially, this is just criminal negligence.

MARTIN: Which, I imagine, is just going to intensify protests, right? People have been demonstrating on the streets about the state of Lebanon and its dysfunction.

SHERLOCK: Yes. And so you can imagine how angry people are. You know, Lebanese are still trying to put together the pieces of their shattered lives. But you're already seeing spontaneous protests with young people marching through the streets shouting revolution. Yesterday, there were stones thrown at the convoy of the former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. And I think this is just the beginning.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Ruth Sherlock for us. Thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.