The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineSlideshow: Lessons learned from the Beirut port explosion

Slideshow: Lessons learned from the Beirut port explosion

By Kevin Mueller, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, Elie Hantouche, Ph.D. A.M.ASCE, and Nicolas Misselbrook, C.Eng., CPhys

The November 2020 issue of Civil Engineering magazine included “Lessons learned,” a feature on the Port of Beirut explosion. The images in the slideshow below show damage from the blast.

The city of Beirut sits on a peninsula along Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. The Port of Beirut, located directly north of downtown, includes berths for freight vessels, grain silos, and storage hangars. Over the years, thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate amassed in Hangar 12, located directly east of the grain silos. For yet unknown reasons, the same hangar stored fuel, acid, fuse spools, and 15 tons of fireworks. On Aug. 4, 2020, at about 6:07 p.m., a sequence of events started a chain reaction by which a fire in the hangar caused the fireworks and subsequently the ammonium nitrate to detonate, resulting in nearly 200 deaths, more than 6,000 injuries, about 300,000 people losing their homes, and $10 billion to $15 billion of damage throughout the city.

As described in the November “Lessons Learned” feature, the U.S. Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board and the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence publish standards on proper siting for explosive safety. The siting requirements include minimum distances between stored explosives and inhabited buildings, public traffic routes, electrical systems, and other explosive storage locations. In general, the goal of explosive safety siting is twofold: to ensure life safety for the public and to mitigate the propagation of explosives between storage locations. In the instance of Beirut and Hangar 12, the allowed inhabited building distance is 1,700 m, according to U.S. standards, and 1,900 m, according to U.K. standards.

After the explosion, researchers and engineers from the American University of Beirut inspected and assessed individual structures throughout the city to quantify their damage. The damage levels were classified into three categories: destructive damage, partially destructive damage, and nondestructive damage. Examples of each type of damage are shown in these photographs.

It is clear that there was an overall lack of structural damage in Beirut. Several old buildings, designed and constructed prior to modern seismic guidelines, did collapse. However, most buildings experienced substantial nonstructural facade damage. The failure of the buildings’ facades helped dissipate the blast energy and keep the loads from transferring to the structural load-bearing elements. Had this not occurred, the energy from the explosion could have caused substantially more structural damage. Of course, it is important to note that a lack of structural damage does not guarantee an adequate level of life safety. Broken glass, failed facades, damaged false ceilings, and inoperable elevators can and will present substantial dangers to building occupants during and after disasters.

Interested in learning how other ASCE members are helping out in Lebanon? Read more in “ASCE members in Lebanon lift Beirut in aftermath of explosion.

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  1. Who took responsibility for all the explosive material storage?.. If no one.. then therein lies the most fundamental problem of lack of control and regulation by the Lebanese government of building use.

  2. Information is useful concerning explanation about role (relationship) of unreinforced elements of the structure mitigating the blast.


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