Beirut explosion: Captain of ship that brought ammonium nitrate to port speaks out

Captain Boris Prokoshev and crew members demand their release from the arrested cargo vessel Rhosus in the Port of Beirut, in a summer 2014 photograph. (File Photo: Reuters)

The chemicals that went up in flames in Beirut's deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

"They were being greedy," said Boris Prokoshev, who was captain of the Rhosus in 2013 when he says the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.

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Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tons of a highly combustible chemical from Georgia to Mozambique when the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.

The crew were asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan's Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey onto Africa, where the ammonium nitrate was to be delivered to an explosives manufacturer.

But the ship was never to leave Beirut, having tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo before becoming embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.

"It was impossible," Prokoshev, 70, told Reuters of the operation to try and load the extra cargo. "It could have ruined the whole ship and I said no," he said by 'phone from his home in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

Read more: Sixteen arrested in connection with Beirut blasts: State-run news agency

The captain and lawyers acting for some creditors accused the ship's owner of abandoning the vessel and succeeded in having it arrested. Months later, for safety reasons, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse.

On Tuesday, that stockpile caught fire and exploded not far from a built-up residential area of the city. The massive blast killed 145 people, injured 5,000, flattened buildings and made more than a quarter of a million people homeless.

The ship might have succeeded in leaving Beirut, had it managed to load the additional cargo.

The crew had stacked the equipment, including excavators and road-rollers, on top of the doors to the cargo hold which held the ammonium nitrate below, according to the ship's Ukrainian boatswain, Boris Musinchak. But the hold doors buckled.

"The ship was old and the cover of the hold bent," Musinchak said by 'phone. "We decided not to take risks."

The captain and three crew spent 11 months on the ship while the legal dispute dragged on, without wages and with only limited supplies of food.

Once they left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded.

"The cargo was highly explosive. That's why it was kept on board when we were there ... That ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration," Prokoshev said.

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Last Update: Friday, 07 August 2020 KSA 00:09 - GMT 21:09
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