Despair and anger abound in wake of Lebanon's Akkar explosion
A tanker of illegally-stored fuel exploded in the Akkar governorate in northern Lebanon early on Sunday morning, killing 28 and injuring 79.
The oil tank, stored on the edge of a private property, exploded at about 2 a.m.
The army had discovered the stash earlier on Wednesday, claiming a portion of the fuel to redistribute to gas stations in the area. The rest was left on site, and at night residents attempted to siphon the fuel for themselves, triggering the explosion in the process.
How exactly the explosion happened remains unknown, but a medic who was involved in rescue efforts told The New Arab that that the explosion was either triggered by a lit cigarette or as a result of shooting towards the oil tank.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, confusion reigned. Families searched for their loved ones in surrounding hospitals, combing morgues for their bodies.
In a public hospital in Akkar, only one of the four bodies has been identified so far - an engagement ring worn on the finger of one of the victims the only recognisable feature of the otherwise charred corpse.
At Salam Hospital in Tripoli, families milled about anxiously, waiting their turn to go up to the seventh floor and see if their family members were among the patients there. Patients had been transferred there as it was the only hospital in the area that specialised in treating intensive burns.
The receptionist pleaded with families to be patient. The hospital had no time to create a list of names for the stream of injured, which had pushed through its doors just hours prior.
One man, who was searching for his 13-year old brother Mohammed al-Kurdi, told The New Arab that he had had already been to five hospitals, with no sign of his younger sibling.
"I guess we just have to wait," he said.
At the government hospital in Tripoli, families were lined up at the doors of the morgue, waiting to identify the remains of their loved ones. A employee in the morgue told The New Arab that there were seven bodies but only four had been identified so far.
One man, Ismael al-Hassan, a Syrian refugee from Homs, wailed and beat his chest as he left the morgue. Two of his sons, Mohammed and Ahmad, had been killed in the explosion, both leaving behind pregnant wives.
“They were just walking by, curious to see what was going on, when they were killed,” al-Hassan said as he was leaving to identify the corpse of his other son, whose body was being kept at Salam Hospital.
Lebanese soldiers had also been injured in the explosion. At least four passed through Youssef Hospital, before being transferred to better equipped facilities, Bassem, a doctor at the hospital who only gave his first name, told The New Arab.
At least 15 of the victims were being prepared to be flown out of the country for treatment abroad, the medic who was involved in rescue efforts told The New Arab. Their destination is unknown, but Jordan reportedly will be taking a number of the wounded.
In the town of Tleil, where the explosion occurred, irate protesters descended upon the house of George Rachid, the owner of the land where the oil tank was stored.
Angry protesters began to break windows of the house and cars sitting in the driveway. The army managed to push the protesters back, but only after they had lit the cars on fire. Later, the protesters managed a second charge at the house, breaking into the home and setting it ablaze from inside.
As smoke billowed from the burnt out frames of the house, confrontations continued between the army and protesters.
"How can he have thousands of litres of gas, when I can't even find one?" a protester screamed at a soldier. Other protesters alleged that there was another oil tank under the house, and decried the corruption present in Lebanon that allowed one man to horde so much fuel.
The explosion came at a tense time in the country, as after months of sustained shortages in fuel, the Central Bank of Lebanon (BDL) decided to finally lift its fuel subsidies on Wednesday. In the days following the announcement, most gas stations shut as they were unsure how to price their fuel.
The price of fuel on the black market also skyrocketed, with 10-litre canisters being sold for as much as 250,000 lira ($12.5), up from the subsidised rate of 38,750 lira (about $2).
The worsening fuel crisis caused much of the country to shut down, with businesses shuttering due to a lack of electricity and cars remaining parked for lack of fuel.
The American University of Beirut's Medical College (AUB-MC) put out a desperate plea for help on Saturday, warning that it only had enough fuel for two days more of fuel. Come Monday, if no assistance is given, 40 adults and 15 children would immediately die as their respirators shut down.
The lifting of fuel subsidies is just the latest stage in Lebanon's economic meltdown, dubbed among the "top three" global crisis episodes in a recent World Bank report. Since the fall of 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value and about 78 percent of the population lives in poverty.