Moscow: The chemicals that went up in flames in Beirut’s deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago. The chemicals came on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have in Beirut. “They were being greedy,” said Boris Prokoshev, who was captain of the ‘Rhosus’ in 2013. He said that the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.
Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tonne of a highly combustible chemical from Georgia to Mozambique. It was then the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.
The crew was asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan’s Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey onto Africa. The ammonium nitrate was to be delivered there to an explosives manufacturer.
But the ship never left Beirut. It tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo before becoming embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.
“It was impossible,” Prokoshev, said of the operation to try and load the extra cargo. “It could have ruined the whole ship and I said no,” he added. He was talking over the phone from his home in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea coast. After the ship remained docked for some months, for safety reasons, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse.
That same stockpile caught fire Tuesday and exploded not far from a built-up residential area of the city. The huge blast killed 145 people, injured 5,000, flattened buildings and made more than a quarter of a million people homeless
The ship might have succeeded in leaving Beirut, had it managed to load the additional cargo. However, as luck would have been the unnecessary docking led to the catastrophe seven years later.
The crew had stacked the equipment, including excavators and road-rollers, on top of the doors to the cargo hold which held the ammonium nitrate below, according to the ship’s Ukrainian boatswain, Boris Musinchak. But the hold doors buckled. “The ship was old and the cover of the hold bent,” Musinchak said. “We decided not to take risks.”
The captain and three crew members spent 11 months on the ship while the legal dispute dragged on. They did not get their wages and got limited supplies of food. Once they left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded.
“The cargo was highly explosive. That’s why it was kept on board when we were there. That ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration,” Prokoshev said.
Prokoshev identified the ship’s owner as Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin. Attempts to contact Grechushkin were unsuccessful.
Cypriot police questioned Grechushkin at his home in Cyprus, Thursday, a security source said. A Cyprus police spokesman said an individual, whom he did not name, had been questioned at the request of Interpol Beirut in relation to the cargo.
The ammonium nitrate was sold by Georgian fertiliser maker ‘Rustavi Azot LLC’, and was to be delivered to a Mozambique explosives maker, ‘Fabrica de Explosivos’.
Levan Burdiladze, the ‘Rustavi Azot’ plant director, said that his company had only operated the chemical factory for the last three years. So he could not confirm whether the ammonium nitrate was produced there. He called the decision to store the material in Beirut port a ‘gross violation of safe storage measures’. He pointed out ‘ammonium nitrate loses its useful properties in six months’ and then it should have been ‘disposed’.
Initial Lebanese investigations into what happened are on. They have pointed to inaction and negligence in the handling of the potentially dangerous chemical.
Lebanon’s cabinet agreed Wednesday to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest. This information was given by sources in the Lebanese ministry.
The head of Beirut port and the head of customs said that several letters were sent to the judiciary. The letters asked for the removal of the dangerous material. However, no action was taken.
According to Prokoshev, the ship had been leaking but was seaworthy when it sailed into Beirut in September 2013. However, he said Lebanese authorities paid little attention to the ammonium nitrate, which had been stacked in the hull in large sacks.
“I feel sorry for the people (killed or injured in the blast). But local authorities, the Lebanese, should be punished. They did not care about the cargo at all,” said Prokoshev.
The abandoned ‘Rhosus’ sank where she was moored in Beirut harbour, according to a May, 2018 email from a lawyer to Prokoshev. The mail said that it (Rhosus) had gone down ‘recently’.