The Lessons of History?

by | Aug 10, 2020 | Staff blogs, Uncategorised | 0 comments

Darren Walter, Senior Lecturer in Emergency Global Health, HCRI

Ken Hines, Retired GP and Pre-hospital Care Doctor, Librarian Disaster Resource Centre

a plum of smoke rising from a city

Humanitarian and Disaster Management academics, like people across the world, will have watched with horror the truly shocking images and videos arising from the explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital Beirut on Tuesday 4th August. The huge plumes of smoke and then, with the main detonation of the apparently neglected stockpile of ammonium nitrate, the propagating blast wave spreading across the city, left no doubt about the potential scale of death, injury and destruction that was being witnessed (BBC, 2020a).

Following a predictable trajectory, the media narrative has described the scale of the damage, the response of the emergency services, shown scenes from the overwhelmed hospitals, described how ordinary Lebanese people have been impacted and now, a few days later, report on the understandable public anger and the desire to apportion blame. The public distress is beginning to turn to anger at its government, and the authorities trying to manage the ongoing response are having to contend with civil disturbance and political protest (BBC, 2020b). This disaster is rapidly becoming an increasingly complex emergency.

The world community has given its expressions of support, indeed the leader of the former colonial power, France, was touring the scene within 48 hours (BBC, 2020c). At the invitation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, humanitarian assistance is beginning to arrive and there is sure to be a coordinated international effort to support the many thousands affected (BBC, 2020a). At times such as this, the only acceptable response from world leaders watching from afar is to express shock and offer support. Within hours our British Prime Minister had stated that “the UK is ready to provide support in any way we can” (BBC, 2020a). The French President, Emmanuel Macron, has described the disaster as a “metaphor for Lebanon’s current crisis” and, perhaps unhelpfully in the middle of the crisis, called for a “new political order” (BBC, 2020c) and, in the absence of any known evidence, the American President complicated the international perspective by calling the event “a terrible attack” (BBC, 2020a). More positively, neighbours with historically difficult diplomatic relations with Lebanon, including Israel, were offering humanitarian support “through international security and diplomatic channels” (Haaretz, 2020).

Whilst still under investigation, it is becoming clearer how the ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the heart of this devastation came to be in the warehouse; a result of a protracted legal dispute over the payment of port fees for a Russian-registered ship that docked in 2013 (Reuters, 2020). The BBC reporter Quentin Summerville has already suggested “how enormously stupid it was, what criminal negligence it took to leave this highly explosive material right in the very heart of this city” and “the authorities here knew – they had been warned that these chemicals were dangerous and that they were a great risk”.

Philosopher George Santayana is thought to be the origin of the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and it seems that Beirut has discovered the truth of this aphorism. Putting aside the role that the chemical has played in a range of terrorist activities across the globe, this type of tragic accident is not a unique historical event. The events of Krewald, Monclova, Ryonchon, Tessenderlo, Tianjin and Toulouse, all significant explosions, have been lost. Others incidents have been closer to home.

On the 2nd April 1916, a store of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate, together with 25 tons of TNT, exploded at Faversham in Kent, killing 115 people (Faversham_Times, 2012). In Oppau in Germany on 21st September 1921, 450 tons exploded killing 450 and injuring 2000 (Kristensen, 2016). On 16th April 1947 in Texas City, USA, 960 tons detonated aboard a moored cargo ship, killing 567 people, including 27 of the 28 Fire Department personnel who had responded to the emergency, and injuring over 5000 (Stephens, 1997).

There is a recurring theme through these tragedies. Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer but also a component of explosives. It is manufactured, stored and transported in significant quantities for legitimate purposes and, although regulated (HSE, 2020, ECHA, 2020), its relative availability and frequent handling can lead to imprudence and perhaps even a lack of attention to its risks.

As shocking and distressing as the contemporary events of Beirut are, intensified by the effect of so much visual imagery of the primary incident and immediate first hand social media accounts of the tragedy, there are two issues that should perhaps cause us to pause and reflect.

The Emergency Services are called upon to go towards the centre of a crisis, to try to contain it, limit the damage and provide rescue and care for those affected. As with the Texas City Fire Department in 1947, it is likely that many of those first responders will have been killed in the explosion; their stories will surely come forward over the coming days. Whilst people around the world are rightly shocked and demand accountability, we should remember those who are called upon to run towards danger whilst others move away.

There are large stockpiles of this same chemical currently in warehouses, ships and trains around the world. This event is the latest of a string of similar tragedies over the last century and those who are responsible for the manufacture, sale, storage, use and regulation of this agent, and other similarly explosive compounds, should ask themselves whether their systems and processes are as strong, safe and robust as they should be. How will their current behaviours and actions look under the gaze of international public scrutiny if a similar incident were to happen to their site and on their watch?

Aldous Huxley, extending Santayana, said: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”


BBC. 2020a. Beirut blast: Dozens dead and thousands injured, health minister says [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

BBC. 2020b. Beirut explosion: Anti-government protests break out in city [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

BBC. 2020c. Beirut explosion: Macron calls for ‘deep change’ in Lebanon after blast [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

ECHA. 2020. Substasnce Innfocard: Ammonium Nitrate [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

FAVERSHAM_TIMES 2012. Tales of horror and heroism after the great explosion.

HAARETZ. 2020. ‘We Share Your Pain’: Israel Offers Aid to Lebanon After Beirut Port Blast [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

HSE. 2020. Ammonium nitrate [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

KRISTENSEN, T. 2016. A factual clarification and chemical-technical reassessment of the 1921 Oppau explosion disaster – the unforeseen explosivity of porous ammonium sulfate nitrate fertilizer [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

REUTERS. 2020. Ship that delivered explosive material to Beirut port was never supposed to stop there, says captain [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8/8/ 2020].

STEPHENS, H. W. 1997. The Texas City Disaster, 1947, University of Texas Press.



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