Forensic Architecture reconstructs the port blast that crippled Beirut

A Better Beirut

Forensic Architecture reconstructs the port blast that crippled Beirut

Using photos and videos of the warehouse prior to the explosion on August 4, Forensic Architecture was able to model where the powerful blast originated from and map how the materials were stored. (Courtesy Forensic Architecture)

Nearly four months after the massive explosion that left over 6,500 injured, more than 200 dead, and damaged over 300,000 homes in Beirut, both citizens and international observers still don’t know what caused the blast.

With the Lebanese government tight-lipped over what sparked one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, Egyptian media company Mada Masr reached out to Forensic Architecture for help reconstructing what exactly happened on August 4. The blast originated at a portside warehouse that had been storing 3,000 tons of seized ammonium nitrate since 2014, but the cause (officially) remains evasive.

The results of that collaboration bore fruit on November 17, when the London-based architecture and research collective released the Beirut Port Explosion report and accompanying video fly-through.

Using videos and photographs of the area culled from social media before, during, and after the blast, the team was able to geolocate each piece of reference material and place cameras in an open-source map of the city to match each vantage point around the warehouse. Then, with the help of UN explosives expert Gareth Collett, they were able to trace each of the four plumes of smoke during the period the warehouse was on fire back to arrangements of specific materials.

prior to the beirut blast, volatile chemicals were stored next to fireworks and tires
A comparison graphic depicting best practices in the U.S. and U.K. for storing ammonium nitrate, versus how it was stored prior to the Beirut blast. (Courtesy Forensic Architecture)

Then, using photos from January 2020 and a December 2019 video of the inside of the warehouse, Forensic Architecture was able to create a 3D model of the building and reconstruct where the bags of ammonium nitrate had been stored. As the group notes in their breakdown, ammonium nitrate isn’t necessarily a powerful explosive on its own when stored properly, but the presence of tons of fireworks, tires, and other contaminants, and the improper arrangement of the warehouse, turned the entire building into a bomb just waiting to go off.

“Ammonium Nitrate is extremely difficult to detonate by fire alone,” said Collett in the report. “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.”

Thus, the group ultimately lays the blame on the state government for failing to inspect and fine or otherwise punish the warehouse owners, and for keeping the ammonium nitrate there for six years in the first place—especially since hazardous materials are still being kept haphazardly there.

If you’re interested in retracing Forensic Architecture’s work yourself, the team has made the models and resources it culled from accessible to the public. At the time of writing, many of the city’s homes, galleries, museums, and public spaces still remain damaged if not destroyed.