BEIRUT - At least two massive explosions shook Beirut on Tuesday, injuring and killing hundreds of people, strewing devastation across multiple neighborhoods and shattering windows for miles around.
The cause of the early-evening blasts was not immediately clear, but senior officials said it appeared that flammable materials stored in a warehouse had caught fire. An earlier, smaller explosion had apparently ignited a fire, then came two secondary blast, propelling a vast mushroom cloud of pink and yellow smoke over the city.
The casualty toll rose through the evening. By midnight, the Health Ministry put the toll at 63 dead and more than 3,000 injured.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of injuries. One, the Hôtel-Dieu, said it had received more than 500 injured people in the first hours after the blasts. For more than an hour after the explosions, people with blood streaming down their faces or limbs wandered the streets, trying to find a way of reaching hospitals on roads too clogged with traffic and debris for ambulances and taxis to move.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Red Cross workers were still scouring the wrecked and deserted streets in neighborhoods adjoining the port, calling out to residents who might be trapped and injured to identify themselves.
The explosions coincide with mounting tensions between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which maintains a facility at the port and has long been accused by U.S. officials of using it to smuggle weapons into the country. The explosion follows a spate of mysterious blasts at Shiite militia weapons storage sites in Iraq last year, which Iraqi and Israeli officials have said Israel was responsible for, and more recently a string of explosions at military sites and sensitive locations in Iran, which regional intelligence officials have said Israel, at least in part, was behind.
An Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said that Israel had no role in the Beirut explosions. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance, via international intermediaries because Israel and Lebanon are in a state of war and have no official contact.
In a statement offering condolences to families of the dead and injured, Hezbollah did not apportion blame. It called the incident a "huge national tragedy" and urged Lebanese to unite to overcome the ordeal.
At a news conference, President Donald Trump called the explosion a "terrible attack" and said that U.S. generals seemed to feel that it was the result of a "bomb of some kind." But military officials said they had yet to make a solid assessment of the explosion.
There were many indications that the blast may have been a tragic accident. Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi said it appeared that stocks of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used in bombmaking, had ignited.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab linked the explosions to 2,700 tons of the dangerous chemical that had been stored at the port since 2014, despite warnings from port officials that the material was not safe.
"I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability. . . . Those responsible will pay the price," he said in a televised speech. "Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced and I will not preempt the investigations."
But suspicions lingered that Israel may have been involved, said a senior Lebanese army officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive. Numerous witnesses reported hearing warplanes overhead at the time, he noted.
"There are suspicions," the official said. "There will be no conclusion until there has been a full investigation.
Israeli planes and drones have been flying with increasing regularity over the city in recent weeks as the tensions have risen.
One thing that was clear is that crisis-stricken Lebanon, in the throes of a major financial and economic collapse and battling rising numbers of coronavirus infections, is in little position to cope with another disaster, especially on this scale. At least two hospitals were badly damaged in the explosions, and TV footage showed staff members evacuating patients to alternative hospitals that were themselves swamped - in the dark, because the city had no electricity.
The Red Cross told all ambulances across the country to head to Beirut to report for duty.
Many residents lost their homes, especially in the majority-Christian eastern part of the city closest to the blast. In the neighborhood of Gemmayze, once a vibrant nightlife district, buildings collapsed, cars were overturned and streets were blocked by piles of masonry and twisted metal.
The damage was spread across a wide arc. Windows were blown out, and check-in counters were damaged at Beirut's airport several miles from the explosion. Doors were blown open and windows rattled at the U.S. Embassy, more than six miles away.
Health officials warned that the explosion had left a toxic cloud of nitrous oxide hanging over the city, and told residents to wear masks and stay indoors. The U.S. Embassy issued a similar warning in a message to U.S. citizens. "There are reports of toxic gases released in the explosion so all in the area should stay indoors and wear masks if available," the message said.
Among the dead was Nizar Najarian, a senior official with the Kataeb political party. The injured included Kamal Hayek, the chairman of the state-owned electricity company, according to the state-run National News Agency.
Germany's foreign ministry tweeted that German Embassy employees were among those injured. Phone lines went down, and the Internet faltered as friends and relatives took to the telephone to check on loved ones.
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Loveluck reported from Baghdad. The Washington Post's Suzan Haidamous, Siobhán O'Grady and Miriam Berger in Washington and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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Mail problems marred the delivery of absentee ballots in Michigan in the run-up to Tuesday's primary in the state, testing election administrators and ramping up fears of political pressure on the U.S. Postal Service just three months before Nov. 3.
Across the state, where polls opened Tuesday at 7 a.m., some voters reported not receiving their absentee ballots with just days left before the vote for several congressional primaries, as well as state and local offices. Election officials advised voters to submit their absentee ballots in person at election offices or dropboxes by 8 p.m. Tuesday, rather than risk delayed delivery by the Postal Service.
The difficulties in Michigan - one of five states holding primaries Tuesday and a crucial presidential battleground for the fall - offer a potential warning ahead of the general election, when millions more votersthan in past yearsare expected to vote absentee to avoid possible exposure to the novel coronavirus at in-person polling locations.
At least 77% of American voters will be able to vote through the mail in the fall, according to a Washington Post tracker of state rules.
Recent policy changes at the Postal Service put in place by the new postmaster general, a top donor to President Donald Trump, have caused days-long backlogs of mail, according to postal employees and union officials, heightening fears that absentee ballots will not be delivered in time to be counted.
The Postal Service has said the changes are aimed at stabilizing the agency after decades of financial woes and are not meant to slow the delivery of ballots or any other mail.
But Trump has spent the past several months lambasting the practice of voting by mail with rhetoric that now appears to be turning GOP voters away from absentee ballots. He has recently intensified his attacks on the Postal Service, telling reporters on Monday that it has been mismanaged and does not have the capacity to handle a flood of absentee ballots.
"The post office, for many, many years, has been run in a fashion that hasn't been great," Trump said during a White House news briefing. "Great workers and everything, but they have old equipment, very old equipment, and I don't think the post office is prepared for a thing like this. You have to ask the people at the post office, but how can the post office be expected to handle [this]?"
In Michigan, like in many other states, large numbers of voters turned to mail voting for the primary this year. As on Monday, about 2,066,000 absentee ballots had been sent to voters, compared with about 575,000 at the same point in August 2016.
As of 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Michigan voters had returned roughly 1.48 million absentee ballots, breaking the state's previous record of 1.27 million absentee ballots cast in the November 2016 general election, according to office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Benson spokesperson Jake Rollow said Tuesday that his office did not have specific evidence that mail delays would lead to absentee ballots not being counted, but that it was safer for voters to drop off their ballots. Under Michigan law, ballots must be received by Tuesday to be counted.
Rollow said the secretary of state's office has been in frequent communication with the Postal Service and that it redesigned ballot envelopes to make sure they could get delivered as quickly as possible.
"What we've been told from USPS is that they, on a daily basis, clear their system of ballots, which are essentially fast-tracked and treated differently than other mail," he said.
Rollow said in-person voting was proceeding smoothly across the state after a small handful of polling locations opened late in Detroit. The secretary of state's office sent 35 standby election workers to the city to offer help, a new initiative to alleviate the strain on city clerks created by coronavirus, he said.
Requests for absentee ballots have risen sharply around the country, including in Arizona, Kansas and Missouri, which also were holding primaries on Tuesday. Voters also cast ballots in Washington state, which has held universal mail elections for nearly a decade.
In Detroit,where Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, faces challenger Brenda Jones on Tuesday,approximately 90,000 absentee ballots had been issued and 58,000 had been returned as of Saturday, according to City Clerk Janice Winfrey.
In an interview with WDET, Detroit's NPR station, on Friday, Winfrey encouraged voters to drop off their ballots in person because "the mail is moving much slower than it traditionally does."
Winfrey said her office has prepared for an increase in absentee voting for at least a year, purchasing a high-capacity mail sorter and high-speed ballot tabulators that can count 1,000 to 2,000 ballots per hour.
"We're very fortunate we prepared a couple of years back," Winfrey said. "... Thank god we did."
At Wayne Community College on the city's northwest side, a steady stream of voters filtered into the polls on Tuesday morning. Inside the building, voters were screened for covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Each voter stood on a blue line of tape answering questions asked by a woman seated at a table 6 feet away.
"Have you been around anyone that tested positive?" the woman asked each voter, along with other questions about covid-19 symptoms like fever and cough. After the health screening, voters were asked to go to the bathroom and wash their hands.
Marcia Bonner, 66, stood near the polling place handing out campaign material for a local state legislature candidate. Donned in blue latex gloves and a white face mask, she held a stack of campaign fliers, adding that she was a bit nervous about handing them out.
"I'm not so much worried about myself getting sick," the retiree said, explaining her bigger concern was unknowingly passing the virus to someone else.
Bonner said she returned her absentee ballot by mail last week, but was "a little" worried it might not arrive in time to be counted.
"Now I kind of wish I had waited and handed [it in] today," she said.
In Kansas City, Mo., where Medicaid expansion is on Tuesday's ballot, voters filed steadily into a polling location at Wornall Road Baptist Church Tuesday morning.
Elections officials in Kansas City dramatically reduced the number of polling stations - from 115 to 50 - and turned to larger school gyms and community centers to better allow for socially distancing, according to Shawn Kieffer, the Republican director for the city's election board.
Kieffer said officials had mailed about 8,000 absentee ballots to voters, and statewide more than 206,000 people in the state had requested an absentee ballot - far more than in previous years. Missouri officials relaxed notary requirements for high-risk groups such as the elderly to make it easier for them to cast absentee ballots.
Frederick Thompson, 62, an attorney, said he was voting in person with his mask on because he does not trust the mail system.
"We don't have a good mail system. It's really not viable any more," said Thompson, a Republican and a Trump supporter. "We have been on a downward spiral with the mail for some time."
Thompson said he does not think expanded mail-in voting is a good idea because of what he sees as a potential for fraud.
"The mail is inherently unreliable," he said. "I don't have a lot of confidence in the system. I have received my neighbors' mail, and they have received my mail. For me, it's two issues. One, there is no accountability. There is no degree of certainty it would even work. And two, it is potentially rife for fraud."
Election officials throughout the country have challenged Trump's claims that voting by mail will lead to widespread fraud, saying that with the right safeguards, mail voting is secure. Data from several states with all-mail elections show they have had a tiny rate of potentially fraudulent ballots in recent years.
More than 315,000 had requested mail ballots in Kansas, more than five times the amount as the 2018 primary, elections officials said. The state has a hotly contested primary for the open Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican.
At Westside Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, many GOP voters were choosing between the two front-runners for the Senate seat, Rep. Roger Marshall, the establishment pick, and firebrand conservative Kris Kobach, the former state Secretary of State who has made fighting election fraud the hallmark of his political career.
Some at the church said they felt that more widespread voting by mail in November would be risky.
"I think mail-in voting is a disaster in the making. There is too much corruption and we have already see that in some states," said Ron Harrison, 70, a retired mechanical engineer and conservative Republican.
Keri Smith, 47, a nurse and "unhappy Republican," said she supported mail-in voting, "I'm all for anything that allows more people to vote." Trump, she said, was "ridiculous."
On Monday, Detroit voters who had not received their absentee ballots lined up at an elections office in Detroit's New Center neighborhood to seek one.Sitting in the back seat of a sedan with a cane leaning against his leg, Larry Morrison said that as a senior with a disability, he has been voting absentee for years. But the 73-year-old said that until this year, he had never encountered problems receiving the ballot in the mail: "No, no, we always get it right on the money."
Morrison and Josephine Williams, 72, expressed concerns that political leaders might use problems with absentee voting to challenge the results of the election in November.
"I think when they do the presidential [election] it's really going to be a problem," said Williams, who lives across the street from Morrison on Detroit's west side.
Another voter, Donald Williams, 63, said he also did not receive his ballot in the mail despite submitting an application in June.
"I think the city is doing a great job" despite the mail delays, Williams said. "It's just now that if people really want to vote, we're going to have to put forth that extra effort to do so. You know, I wouldn't let this stop me from getting my vote in."
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Gowen reported from Kansas City, Mo., and Olathe, Kan. Ruble reported from Detroit. The Washington Post's Amy Gardner and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Washington contributed to this report.