A massive explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon, with the force of an earthquake followed by a shock wave that devastated much of the city and probably caused hundreds of casualties.
The blast followed a fire that broke out in the city’s port area, based on a video from the scene. The cause of the blast was not immediately known. The force shook buildings, which were hit again by the shock wave that blew out windows, sending shards of glass flying.
Lebanese Red Cross official Georges Kettaneh said there were hundreds of dead and wounded but did not have an exact figure.
Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud called it a “national catastrophe,” and the prime minister declared a day of mourning, according to CNN.
“It resembles what happened in Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s what [it] reminds me of. In my life, I haven’t seen destruction on this scale,” Abboud said of the mushroom cloud.
The White House and U.S. State Department said they are monitoring the situation.
“Having witnessed the horrific explosions at the port this evening, our heartfelt sympathies go out to the victims and their families. We mourn each loss from this terrible tragedy alongside the Lebanese people,” U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea said.
Online videos showed a dark pall rising from the port, what normally might be expected from an industrial-area fire. It is followed by an explosion creating a massive white cloud that envelops the area. A moment later, the shock wave hits.
The blast, which occurred shortly after 6 p.m. local time, was followed by the wail of ambulance sirens through streets covered in debris.
Over the past few decades, the city has endured bloodshed from suicide bombings, attacks from neighboring Israel and a civil war.
Some TV stations reported the blast was inside an area where fireworks were stored.
“If it was fireworks, as some news sources are saying – they are some damn big fireworks,” said CNN’s Beirut correspondent Ben Wedeman. He said he “never felt anything like it … [I’ve] been around the block and seen pretty large explosions … and this was bigger.”
Washington Post Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly reported “bleeding people, wreckage piled all over.”
In late July, Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a war between the bitter enemies in 2006. Israel considers Hezbollah to be its most immediate threat.
Contributing: The Associated Press