A wounded woman helps another injured person get into the backseat of a car in Beirut following a twin explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital on August 4, 2020. Photo: Marwan Tahtah / AFP

The Lebanese capital was rocked by a massive double explosion on Tuesday evening emanating from the Beirut port, killing more than 70 people, wounding thousands, and causing massive untold losses to a nation in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis.

“What happened today is bigger than all of Lebanon in its current state [of crisis], a massive challenge to the government, and a catastrophe of epic proportions,” Minister of Health Hamad Hasan told reporters.

The explosion is believed to have been caused when a warehouse containing “highly explosive materials, confiscated more than one year ago,” caught fire, Lebanon’s top security official, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, told reporters after inspecting the site of the blast. A container of fireworks, which appear to be exploding in a number of videos circulating of the initial blast, may have started the chain reaction, according to early reports.

Ibrahim stressed that investigations are ongoing and he could not yet reveal conclusively the cause.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Moeen Hamza, who heads Lebanon’s Council for Scientific Research, blamed “negligence” for the explosion in an interview aired on Al-Jadeed television. The confiscated store of what is believed to have been ammonium nitrate should have been monitored around the clock, he said.

The size of the double impact raised speculation in other circles that a Hezbollah weapons depot was the source of the blast or was possibly targeted. Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations one year ago accused Lebanese authorities of allowing Beirut port to become “Hezbollah’s port.” Israeli political sources denied on Tuesday that the country had anything to do with the Beirut incident, according to Harretz.

The explosion, which Beirut residents said felt like an “earthquake” and coated the city in thick smoke hours later, has launched calls for blood donations at local hospitals, which themselves are in shambles from the blast.

The Health Minister Hasan said the initial count of 25 deaths was expected to rise as medical responders continued to search for victims and pull people from the rubble, and as hospitals have been flooded with thousands of injured.

A screenshot taken from a video posted to social media shows a massive blast that rocked the Beirut port area on August 4, 2020.

The Lebanese Red Cross says it has deployed all available ambulances and teams from across the country to respond to the victims, while survivors are being transported to hospitals up and down the coast for care, as Beirut hospitals are overwhelmed.

A bloodied man seen entering a Beirut hospital told LBCI television that his business, located next to the port, had been completely destroyed.

“We didn’t see this huge influx of cases in a span of hours even during the civil war,” a hospital director in Beirut told Lebanon’s MTV.

Across the capital, scenes of pandemonium, wreckage and death are emerging by the minute. Inside Lebanon’s national electricity company, which overlooks the port, an Al-Jadeed TV crew met a man who discovered his wife dead in the rubble as first responders searched the building. They did not film the body.

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, whose father Rafik was killed in a massive explosion in 2005, was confirmed safe by his office. The current PM Hassan Diab has already declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.

France and Qatar were some of the first countries to pledge medical assistance. Iran said it stood ready to aid in any way possible, while Saudi Arabia expressed condolences for the victims.

The disaster comes as Lebanon faces an unprecedented financial crisis, severe fuel and electricity shortages, and spiraling inflation that threatens to impoverish a once-thriving middle class and has left the poor struggling to put food on the table.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.