Years before a devastating blast killed at least 100 people and injured more than 4,000 in Beirut Tuesday, a maritime analyst issued a public warning that a Russian “floating bomb” was languishing in the city’s docks.
Maritime monitoring systems tracked the Rhosus into port in Beirut in September 2013. The ship, which was flagged in Moldova, listed its official cargo as “agricultural commodities.”
The 2,750 metric ton cargo of ammonium nitrate would primarily be used for fertilizers or high power explosives. To put it in context, less than two metric tons of ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The Russian-owned cargo ship called into port in Beirut for reasons unknown, possibly after running into trouble at sea en route from Georgia to Mozambique. Beirut authorities blocked it from leaving and the dangerous cargo was offloaded and stored in Hanger 12 in the port a year later, according to the maritime monitoring website Fleetmon.
Mikhail Voytenko, a Russian maritime analyst based in Thailand, warned in July 2014 that the ship, which he said was owned by a Russian operator, was effectively a “floating bomb.”
Voytenko said the ship’s owners had abandoned the ship and its crew, and the Lebanese authorities had failed to protect the deadly cargo. “There are a lot of restrictions, regulations and rules to stick to when talking about storing explosives like ammonium but they just stored it in a warehouse and forgot about it,” he told The Daily Beast by phone from close to the Laem Chabang port in Thailand where he works.
The Russian captain of the abandoned ship, Boris Prokoshev, and three Ukrainian crew members Valery Lupol, 3rd mechanic Andrey Golovyoshkin and boatswain Boris Musinchak, were made to stay on the ship with the deadly cargo after the other six crew members were released.
They launched an appeal to get out, writing to Russian and Ukrainian journalists and to a group that supports seamen.
“The shipowner abandoned the vessel. The cargo owner has ammonium nitrate in the hold,” Musinchak wrote in an email to both the Assol Seamen Aid Foundation and the diplomatic services of Ukraine. “It is an explosive substance... This is how we live for free on a powder keg for 10 months.”
A Lebanese court then reportedly gave permission to unload the cargo, but not before asking the sailors to find a buyer for it themselves, which they claimed in the email they could not because all communication was stripped from the ship.
On Wednesday, Prokoshev appeared on Russian television, insisting that even the lawyer who tried to free them was corrupt and not concerned about the fate of the ammonium nitrate. “For some reason, the consignee did not lift a finger to get his cargo out,” he said.
The ship was owned and operated by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian, who now moved to Cyprus, according to the stranded sailors. Calls to Grechushkin were not immediately answered.
As well as the public warning, Lebanese officials had repeatedly ignored warnings by port authorities about the ammonium nitrate that sparked the devastating explosion.
Badri Daher, the current head of Lebanon’s customs authority, told reporters on the scene that the explosion was linked to the ammonium nitrate. Several people in the open source intelligence community later tweeted photos of loosely packed bags of white powder, assumed to be the substance. The Daily Beast has not verified the authenticity of the photos.
On June 27, 2014, Shafik Merhi, then head of the Lebanese Customs Authority wrote to Lebanese officials under the heading “urgent matters,” asking for help to secure the explosives, according to a copy of the letter shared on Twitter by human rights activist Wadih Al Asmar.
Merhi then reportedly sent five more letters, in December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017, pleading for help, according to Al Jazeera, which reports one as saying, “In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount.”
Another letter, this time written by Daher, the incoming head of Lebanese Customs Authority reiterated the warning of “the danger of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there.”
Lebanon’s new prime minister Hassan Diab, who came to the job in January 2020, alluded to the theory that the devastation could have been avoided, promising that “all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay a price.”
President Donald Trump referred to the explosion as an attack, though local authorities say it was likely set off by a welder working nearby. “I’ve met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that . . . this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event,” Trump said at a White House briefing. “They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
On Wednesday, hundreds were still reported missing from the massive explosion, which generated seismic waves similar to a 3.3 magnitude earthquake.
Beirut port, which is dubiously nicknamed the Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves because of the alleged corruption tied to its management, has been under intense scrutiny in recent months after the October Revolution began last fall.
Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here