England’s Beirut-Style Explosion Waiting to Happen

(Courtesy of the USA)

(US Navy photo)

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Something like what happened in Beirut on Tuesday could hit England at any moment thanks to a deathtrap the United States left at the mouth of the River Thames in 1944. If America’s hazardous mess—a mostly-sunken WWII navy ship—ever explodes, the resulting blast might be comparable in size to Beirut’s tragic explosion, though thankfully, this one probably won’t hit quite as many buildings and people.

The locals in Sheerness, the town in Kent, England, closest to the wreckage, are aware there’s a problem, and have decorated accordingly. In 2015, a local artist named Dean Tweedy painted a mural in its honor featuring a surly mermaid on the beach, ready to detonate a plunger whose fuse leads to the visible wreckage offshore. The whole thing is a bit Jaws.

(Mural photo by Robert Eva)

But more than just being a potentially devastating explosion, the story of this ship, the S.S. Richard Montgomery, is remarkably similar in some of its specifics to the Beirut disaster, particularly all the stupidity that led up to it.

To recap: what happened Tuesday is that something very big exploded at Beirut’s port, and in addition to being deadly, the explosion completely destroyed a bunch of buildings including an important grain elevator. Measured as an earthquake, the blast registered as a 3.3 on the richter scale. Measured in human lives, at least 157 people have died so far. If you need to use nukes as your reference point, the explosion measured about 2 percent of one “Little Boy,” a.k.a. the nuke the US dropped on Hiroshima almost exactly 75 years ago. 

But more to the point, this event simply took a horrifically big bite out of Beirut. The most devastating measurements to use are probably the number of people left injured or homeless—5,000 and 300,000 respectively. Lebanon was also in the middle of COVID and the accompanying Great COVID Depression—that is: the same two crises as every other country in the world, except that Lebanon’s financial crisis was already probably the worst in the world before any of this happened. Now, since much of Lebanon’s live-giving grain was just blown up, as was the port they used to take in new shipments of grain, they may have a food crisis on their hands as well. 

I watched all of the expected scapegoating and conspiracy theories emerge in real time. The explosion was thought to be a possible nuclear attack by a foreign power—and to be fair Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel, a nuclear power—or it could have been some kind of accidental detonation of a Hezbollah weapons cache. With news like this, I make it a personal and professional policy not to buy into conspiracies when there’s not substantial evidence pointing that way, but also not to completely rule out the idea that someone is successfully covering up cartoonish supervillainy. But having said that, from all appearances so far, it appears the culprit truly was a comedy of errors, exacerbated by incompetence, laziness, and greed.

That is to say, as you’ve probably heard, the source of the explosion was probably just the 3,000-ish tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer locked in that Beirut warehouse, which were ignited by an unrelated fire, and blew up.

As scary as terrorism and war may be, I find disasters like this one scarier in some ways, because they are just things out there in the world that can happen. In 2013, a train disaster in Canada killed 49 people, and it turned out to be the result of a bunch of little things that didn’t seem like a big deal until one day they were. The conductor was given a light community service sentence for not following certain safety procedures to the letter, but an investigation ultimately found that the accident was “not caused by one single person, action or organization.” Beirut’s ammonium nitrate disaster looks like another one of these no-bad-guy-just-a-lot-of-idiots deals.

And, OK, the whole thing is quite a bit fishier than the Canadian train disaster, but as a person who has a hard time with details, I’m glad I’m not the one whose job it is to dole out moral demerits for this extremely weird story:

The M.V. Rhosus is a janky 284-foot Japanese-built cargo ship, most recently flying the Moldovan flag, leased to a motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, who, until this past week showed very little interest in the fate of the cargo ship he was theoretically responsible for. In 2013 the Rhosus was already barely seaworthy: rusty, taking on water, and generally had no business being loaded full of explosives. But nonetheless, the ship, captained by a guy named Boris Prokoshev left Europe’s Georgia in 2013, ostensibly to deliver the fateful shipment of explosive fertilizer to a buyer in Mozambique.

As far as I can tell, the route it would have taken was fascinating, and would have relied heavily on narrow canals, straits, and gulfs.

(map by me)

But only the red part, the little loop around Turkey, ever happened. It stopped for a while in Athens for some reason, and then carried on through the Mediterranean making its way toward the Suez Canal through Egypt, before, according to a 2015 report by Lebanese lawyers, some unknown “technical problems” forced the Rhosus to dock in Beirut and receive an inspection from the local port authorities, who declared it unfit for sailing and sent six out of ten of the crew members home.

But that account is missing a ton of detail. According to Captain Prokoshev, via the BBC, it seems some sort of grift was afoot:

[T]he Rhosus only stopped off in Beirut because its owner [again, the motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin who was just leasing it] had money trouble. The captain said he was told the ship needed to collect an additional cargo of heavy machinery, to fund passage through the Suez Canal.

However, the machinery proved too heavy to load, and when the ship's owner did not pay the port fees and fine, the Lebanese authorities impounded it, along with the ammonium nitrate, he added.

And at that point, Grechushkin said he was bankrupt, and just sorta went silent, which probably annoyed Beirut’s port officers quite a bit given that they’d spent a lot of money and effort trying to get the Rhosus safely back out of their port.

What do you do when there’s an abandoned sinking ship containing 3,000 tons of explosive fertilizer and four people—Captain Prokoshev and three Ukranian crew members—docked at your port? There are no easy answers, but if I were the Lebanese port authority (and again, I regularly thank God I am not), I would like to think I might A) repatriate the rest of the crew, and B) scuttle the trashed ship a safe distance from my port, but not before C) unloading the hazardous cargo, and carting it off as far as possible from Beirut as is practical, perhaps storing it in one of the abandoned areas near Marajayoun in Southern Lebanon. Those ideas come with their own problems, and they’re far from great solutions, but I only bring them up to contrast them with what happened instead:

The remaining four abandoned crew members were essentially imprisoned on this abandoned sinking ship with the abandoned explosive fertilizer indefinitely, and given food and water by a port worker who took pity on them. Captain Prokoshev would write letters to diplomats attempting to get someone to bail him and his three Ukrainian crewmen out of their horrible predicament, but to no avail. Someone at Lebanon’s Russian Embassy wrote back “Do you expect President Putin to send special forces to get you out?” And this went on for months until, in 2014, a Lebanese judge gave them a compassionate release, and, somehow, motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin paid to transport them home. Maybe he was relieved that no one was asking him to dispose of his dangerous stockpile of explosive fertilizer, and was happy to spend a few thousand dollars on plane tickets to put the matter to bed forever. Perhaps he dusted off his hands, feeling like a very responsible and generous person.

Lebanese authorities knew all that ammonium nitrate was just sitting on an abandoned sinking ship with no one on board to pump out the water that was causing it to sink, so they solved the problem by unloading the explosive fertilizer into a nearby storage building called Hangar 12.

The port’s general manager was a guy named Hassan Koraytem, and for the record, as far as I can tell he’s one of the port workers currently in jail, awaiting some sort of charges for his role in causing the explosion. But back in 2014, according to The New York Times, officials made “repeated requests” to have the ammonium nitrate moved to safety. Koraytem told the Times, “We were told the cargo would be sold in an auction […] But the auction never happened and the judiciary never acted.” From the Times article, it sounds a bit like whoever held a legal claim to the ammonium nitrate at that point was treating it like less of a hazard than a potential source of revenue—maybe it can be sold to a farm, or a mining company, or the military, etc… And given the state of the Lebanese bureaucracy at the time, the extra funds were probably desperately needed.

So it just sat there for about six years. Then on Tuesday there was a huge fire at the port (so far I haven’t found much about how the first fire started, so if I were a conspiracy theorist I would definitely latch onto this part of the story), which spread to a bunch of fireworks, and then hit the fertilizer stockpile and the result, at about 2.75 kilotons was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time.

Which brings me back to the S.S. Richard Montgomery, where the unexploded disaster waiting off the coast of England is a bit smaller in terms of its tonnage—about 1.5 thousand tons—but still pretty scary.

Could this story be as idiotic as the story of the M.V. Rhosus? Sadly, yes: in 1944, The Richard Montgomery made the long trip across the Atlantic from the US, and then was loaded with explosives, and scheduled to wait in the relatively shallow waters of the Thames estuary to join a convoy later bound for Cherbourg in France. According to a fascinatingly detailed local interest blog called “Southend Timeline,” the order to wait in the estuary was “the death knell” for the Montgomery. One night the ship drifted onto a sandbank as other ships watched in horror and tried to signal a warning, but apparently (warning: this comes from Wikipedia) Captain Wilkie of the Richard Montgomery was asleep, and the ship wrecked hopelessly and started sinking.

Over the next several weeks, crews tried to unload mass quantities of explosives off the ship before it could all sink down to the sand bank, but they didn’t get all of it. About 1.5 thousand tons stayed. The ship later broke in half, exposing the cargo to ocean currents, meaning bombs periodically drift away to god-knows-where, but it’s thought that most of the explosive cargo is still in the wreckage. An exclusion zone has existed there for the past 76 years. And obviously, that attracts all kinds of thrill-seekers and weirdos who swim up to it, and have occasionally been dinged by the authorities for peeking at it. In 1980, a tanker captain was fined £200,000 for sailing within the exclusion zone with a shipment of flammable liquids, Lol.

A 2004 story in New Scientist called “The doomsday wreck” found that the Montgomery was at the time still vulnerable to “a collision with another vessel, a terrorist or even the small shock of a bomb moving in the tide,” and that “far from being stable, the condition of the bombs means they could even explode spontaneously.”

If it all went off at once, that’s theoretically a 1.5 kiloton explosion, which seems unlikely, but too scary to disregard. Out of curiosity, I used Alex Wellerstein’s Missile Map, one of my favorite websites, to create a map view of a 1.5 kiloton weapon detonation at the approximate location of the wreckage of the S.S. Richard Montgomery, and it doesn’t seem like a blast would directly blow up anything on land, though I wish to emphasize, if you’re a resident of Sheerness, that this is just one quick-and-dirty method of calculating the size of this explosion, and not an expert analysis of the likely damage.

In any case, that tells me nothing about likely damage to boats and ships and coastal infrastructure if the Montgomery ever blows up. I can’t really speak to the size or deadliness of the ensuing waves. And last but not least, I pity the poor exploded fish.

Anyway, someone should really do something about all those rusty underwater bombs. Just one guy’s opinion!

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