Investigators began searching through the wreckage of Beirut’s port Wednesday for clues to the cause of the massive explosion that killed 135 as it ripped across the Lebanese capital, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame. The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it. Fueling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger, and asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it. It had been confiscated from a ship in 2013.
The 2017 letter from the custom’s chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage, and protection of the hangar. In the letter, the customs chief warns of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it. The AP reports he said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was ever a response. The stockpile is thought to have been detonated after a fire broke out nearby. (Read much more on the situation in Beirut here.)