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The troubled history of the ship that brought tons of fertilizer to the port of Beirut, Lebanon.

Image Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese officials are blaming the explosion due to ammonium nitrate that was stored in the port several years ago. Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive material, that is used as an agricultural fertilizer. The ammonium nitrate was confiscated back in 2013 from a foreign ship and was kept in the port of Beirut ever since. It is thought that around 2,750 tonnes of the fertilizer exploded on Tuesday. Lebanese officials quickly arrested port personnel and launched an investigation into the mishandling of the highly explosive material.

The vessel that brought the ammonium nitrate back in 2013 was of Russian origin operating under a Moldovan flag. The vessel, named MV Rhosus, was owned by Teto shipping, and the owner of the company was Igor Grechushkin, – described as a dodgy person, and could not care less about the well being of the workers on board and the vessels’ maintenance- his company seems to own only one vessel.

The vessel MV Rhosus. Image Credit: Sirotencu Liviu

The vessel’s troubled history began in 2012, when Teto shipping bought the vessel. Its crew were mostly Ukrainians and Russians. Several workers described the working conditions on the ship as nightmarish. The master’s cabin had no sanitary conventions. Apparently, the ship had a hole in its lower hull which was never fixed, no refrigerator for employees’ food and drinks. The captain of the ship described the hole in the lower hull, ‘It had a small hole in the hull. We had to pump out the water from time to time. Without the crew, there was no one to do that.’ The vessel had a malfunctioning radar system, and trouble with its main engine.

A sailor, Semen Nikolenko, now living in Crimea, described his working experience with the company, ‘It was my first contract, my first (sailing) experience – and a bitter one.’ He described Igor Grechushkin as a ‘sly’ man. The only time repairs were done on the vessel, were the ones pointed out by port authorities. Teto shipping often tried to resolve any issues with port authorities over its ship deficiencies through bribes, rather than tackling the issues. The ship was stopped in several ports due to its deficiencies. The ship was once ‘under arrest’ in Seville, Spain, after they discovered that the vessel was operating with only one power unit. The port authorities forced the company to install a backup generator.

In 2013, the vessel set sail from Batumi, Georgia. It’s final destination was supposed to be Mozambique. It was carrying around 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate. It stopped in Greece for refueling, and shortly afterwards, the owner of the vessel and company told the sailors that he had no money left. He told them that to cover the travel costs, they would have to take a detour to Beirut, to pick up additional cargo. Once the vessel arrived in Beirut, it was detained due to ‘gross violations in operating a vessel,’ complaints from the Russian and Ukrainian sailors and unpaid port fees. It never left the port ever again, and the salaries of the sailors was never paid. The ammonium nitrate was eventually placed in Hanger number 12 in Beirut port according to a court order. The ship owner eventually declared the company bankrupt and abandoned the ship. The ship is thought to have been sunk a long time ago.

On Wednesday, the Director General of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem told channel OTV, ‘We stored the material in warehouse number 12 at Beirut port in accordance with a court order. We knew that they were dangerous materials, but not to that extent.’

He also said that the removal of the explosive material was also brought up by the State Security and Customs, but the material still remained there.

Kraytem added that ‘Customs and State Security sent letters (to the authorities) asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this issue to be resolved, but to no avail.’

Before the deadly explosion on Tuesday, maintenance works had to be conducted on the warehouse door. ‘We were asked to fix a door of the warehouse by State Security and we did that at noon, but what occurred in the afternoon I have no idea.’

It is known that someone decided to store fireworks next to the warehouse containing the ammonium nitrate. It is thought that it started after a person was welding and somehow this led to a fire that set-off the fireworks, which eventually reached the warehouse containing the ammonium nitrate. The explosion is thought to be equivalent to several kilotons of TNT.

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