On Tuesday, the Port of Beirut erupted in fire and became engulfed in thick white smoke. As the inferno raged, sharp flashes that many mistook for fireworks appeared at its base. Curious and fearful onlookers from all over this dense part of the city filmed a white column rising hundreds of feet into the air.
In an instant, the fire was replaced by a blast so powerful that it was reportedly heard and felt in Cyprus, nearly 150 miles across the eastern Mediterranean. A shockwave leveled buildings and shattered windows throughout the city. A distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud appeared, leading too many to hastily conclude that the explosion must have been nuclear. The slowly-growing white column was instantly replaced by thick orange smoke that suggested huge stores of chemicals must be feeding the flames.
The acute cause of the fire remains unknown, but authorities have already identified the chemical stores that fueled such an unimaginable blast. The question is, what were 2,750 tons of dangerous ammonium nitrate doing in the port’s warehouses? Where did it come from and how long had it been there? How could this have happened?
Approximate location of the blast in the Port of Beirut. Source: Google Earth Pro.
Answering this question will surely lead to investigations of port management practices specific to the Port of Beirut, but it would be a mistake to ignore the broader causes of this disaster. The story of this blast begins years ago, when corporate negligence and restrictive border controls led to a protracted legal battle involving abandoned seafarers and an uncooperative shipping company. Inadequate procedures for addressing abandoned ships and seafarers are part of what allowed so much dangerous material to arrive in Beirut’s warehouses in the first place.
Remembering the Rhosus
The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that detonated on Tuesday can be traced back to the Rhosus, which called into the Port of Beirut on September 23, 2013 after experiencing technical difficulties. The ship, sailing under a Moldovan flag, was en route from Georgia to Mozambique. Once in port, the Rhosus underwent an inspection by Port State Control technicians who found significant deficiencies and banned it from resuming operations.
The Rhosus. Image Source: https://www.balticshipping.com/vessel/imo/8630344#gallery-2
The majority of the ship's crew were repatriated, but the captain and three of the crew members were forced to stay aboard. Unfortunately, their situation would continue to deteriorate as all attempts to contact the owner of the ship failed to elicit a response. Further complicating matters were immigration regulations that prevented the crew from even deboarding the ship.
With the crew unable to deboard, and with no incoming supplies or provisions, the situation aboard the Rhosus quickly became a humanitarian issue which even diplomatic efforts failed to resolve. Eventually, the crew contacted legal professionals who successfully argued that the crews’ lives were threatened not only by their stranding, but also due to the dangerous nature of the cargo. The crew received an emergency injunction from the judge, and shortly thereafter left Beirut.
After the departure of the Rhosus’ crew, and the continued silence of its owner, the Port Authority was left with responsibility over the highly explosive contents of the ship. Although currently unsubstantiated, it is possible that legal claims prevented the auctioning of the ammonium nitrates which were left on land storage as the only avenue for the safekeeping of the material. At some point between July 2014 and October 2015, the ammonium nitrate was moved to a warehouse where, ostensibly, it remained until the catastrophic explosion.
Abandonment of Ships and Seafarers: A Widespread Problem
The consequences of ship and seafarer abandonment are rarely as visible and shocking as they were in Beirut on Tuesday, but the problem is actually quite common. In fact, the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization already actively collaborate around issues of seafarer and ship abandonment. The public database maintained by these organizations reports nearly 5,000 seafarers were abandoned on their vessels in nearly 400 separate incidents between 2004 and 2018. Several civil society organizations, including the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network, the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents (FONASBA), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, are also doing critical work on these issues.
Today, abandoned ships and seafarers pose various kinds of threats all over the globe. Even as the world’s attention is on Beirut, a similar disaster is looming in another part of the Middle East. The FSO Safer, a tanker used as a floating oil storage facility off the coast of Yemen, was abandoned years ago when the Yemeni company maintaining the vessel ceased operating during the war. This potential floating bomb in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes is miles from shore, yet an explosion could devastate the environment and hinder all marine traffic through the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb strait, and Suez Canal.
There are relatively few ships that threaten such acute disasters, but there are hundreds of thousands of seafarers who are directly affected by issues of abandonment at sea. Individual incidents of seafarer abandonment rarely attract public attention, yet cumulatively they represent an enormous problem in the global shipping industry. FONASBA estimates 1.2 million seafarers are spread across 55,000 ships each day, and each of them is subject to the decisions made by shipping companies, port managers, and immigration authorities in port states while on board. The seafarers that are left abandoned on vessels are disproportionately drawn from poor countries with inadequate capacity or political will to come to their assistance.
The problem has become more severe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden economic crisis has caused shipping companies to abandon their vessels and most countries have enacted strict border controls that disallow foreign seafarers from disembarking in ports. As a result, tens of thousands of seafarers are currently trapped at sea right now. These seafarers are at a very high risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus while onboard.
International organizations are creating reporting mechanisms and ad hoc solutions to address some of these specific instances, but too often the measures enacted to address the abandonment of seafarers, vessels, and cargo are reactive instead of proactive. Many actions are likely to come from the tragedy in Beirut, including better port storage practices and safety protocols related to the presence of dangerous maritime cargoes (DMCs). As the shipping industry responds, it should also give greater attention to the seafarer and ship abandonment problems that underlie this catastrophe.
Learn more on our Maritime Security Index.