October 26, 2020

Responding to the Beirut Explosion

Louise Tierney by Louise Tierney

On 4 August 2020, a series of explosions occurred in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, culminating in one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history, costing more than 200 lives, causing over 6,000 injuries, and displacing 300,000 people. The economic, political, and societal impact was also extensive and is still unfolding, with an estimated $20 Billion total cost in damages to date.

The explosion is widely reported to have been caused by the detonation of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate (approximately 2,750 tonnes) following a fire in the warehouse where it was being stored. The blast was so intense that it shattered windows over nine kilometers away at the passenger terminal in Beirut International Airport, and was also felt over 230 kilometers away in Cyprus. 

Event Timeline

At 5:40pm local time a fire in the port was first reported, and was attended by 10 firefighters. By 5:54pm smoke from the fire could be seen across Beirut and details of explosions were reported for the first time on Twitter. Samdesk detected this very first tweet and immediately alerted clients to the unfolding situation.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes, samdesk grouped details of the fire and initial blast as they were shared first hand on Twitter and Snapchat, including descriptions, images, and videos of broken windows and glass-covered streets. All of these initial consequences would pale in comparison to the aftermath of the final explosion which occurred at 6:08 local time, almost 30 minutes after the first warning signs appeared. 

At 6:08 pm exactly, samdesk picked up on the first mention of secondary explosions, followed at 6:09 pm by the first photo shared on Twitter of one of the largest explosions in history. 


This particular 30-minute timeline of a tragic event illustrates the complexity and challenges first responders are faced with on a daily basis. Anyone trying to cover the Beirut port incident was faced with initial reports of a fire, followed by chatter of fireworks and explosions, even before the final explosion had occurred. After the final blast, there was a wave of confused reports from people who believed it was an earthquake. 

Needing basic information on what has happened, quickly transforms into the crucial need for ongoing updates. Any knowledge gained in this time provides powerful insight for those reporting on a crisis and is potentially life-saving for anyone required to respond or react to a catastrophic event. The areas and services surrounding Beirut need to treat over 6,000 injured people and support the 300,000 people that were displaced due to the blast. They require as much time as possible to properly prepare, but how can this be achieved in the midst of a crisis?

How samdesk can help

This is precisely where samdesk can help. We specialize in providing speed – letting you know what has happened as soon as it happens. In the case of Beirut, this gave our clients a lead time of over 55 minutes in advance of international breaking news. We also provide situational awareness – what are people on the ground saying? What are the pictures and videos showing? With samdesk, teams can confidently act faster at times when action can make the biggest difference.

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