(CNN)As Lebanon’s investigation into the devastating blast in Beirut continues, officials have pointed to a possible cause: A massive shipment of agricultural fertilizer that authorities say was stored in the port of Beirut without safety precautions for years — despite warnings by local officials.

Documents newly reviewed by CNN reveal that a shipment of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut on a Russian-owned vessel in 2013. The ship, named the MV Rhosus, was destined for Mozambique — but stopped in Beirut due to financial difficulties that also created unrest with the ship’s Russian and Ukrainian crew. Once it arrived, the ship never left Beirut’s port, according Lebanon’s Director of Customs, Badri Daher, despite repeated warnings by him and others that the cargo was the equivalent of “a floating bomb.” What we know about the Beirut blastWhat we know about the Beirut blastWhat we know about the Beirut blast“Due to the extreme danger posed by this stored items in unsuitable climate conditions, we reiterate our request to the Port Authorities to re-export the goods immediately to maintain the safety of the port and those working in it,” Daher’s predecessor, Chafic Merhi, wrote in a 2016 letter addressed to a judge involved in the case.Lebanese authorities have not named the MV Rhosus as the source of the substance that ultimately exploded in Beirut on Tuesday, but Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the devastating blast was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. He added that the substance had been stored for six years at the port warehouse without safety measures, “endangering the safety of citizens.”Read MoreLebanon’s general security chief also said a “highly explosive material” had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Beirut’s shopping and nightlife districts. Tuesday’s massive explosion, which rocked the capital, left at least 135 dead and 5,000 injured. ‘Floating bomb’In 2013, the MV Rhosus set off from Batumi, Georgia, destined for Mozambique, according to the vessel’s path and the account of its captain Boris Prokoshev. It was carrying 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, an industrial chemical commonly used around the world as a fertilizer — and in explosives for mining. The Moldovan-flagged ship stopped in Greece to refuel. That’s when the ship’s owner told the Russian and Ukrainian sailors that he had run out of money and they would have to pick up additional cargo to cover the travel costs — which led them on a detour to Beirut. The vessel was owned by a company called Teto Shipping which members of the crew said was owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Khabarovsk businessman who resided in Cyprus.Once in Beirut, the MV Rhosus was detained by local port authorities due to “gross violations in operating a vessel,” unpaid fees to the port, and complaints filed by the Russian and Ukrainian crew , according to the Seafarers’ Union of Russia (affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, or ITF), which represented the Russian sailors, told CNN. It never resumed its journey. The sailors had been on the ship for 11 months with few supplies, according to Prokoshev. “I wrote to Putin everyday… Eventually we had to sell the fuel and use the money to hire a lawyer because there was not help, the owner did not even provide us with food or water,” Prokoshev said in a radio interview with Echo Moscow on Wednesday. They would eventually abandon the ship. “According to our information, the Russian crew was later repatriated to their homeland… the salaries were not paid,” the union told CNN. “At the time, on board of the dry cargo ship there were particularly dangerous goods — ammonium nitrate, which the port authorities of Beirut did not allow to unload or transfer to another ship,” it added. In 2014, Mikhail Voytenko, who runs an online publication tracking maritime activity, described the ship as a “floating bomb.” CNN made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Grechushkin on a Cyprus telephone number. Unheard warningsAccording to emails exchanged by Prokoshev and a Beirut-based lawyer Charbel Dagher, who represented the crew in Lebanon, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded in Beirut’s port by November 2014 and stored in a hangar. It was then kept in that hangar for six years, despite repeated warnings from the Director of Lebanese Customs, Badri Daher, of the “extreme danger” that the cargo posed.But public court documents CNN obtained through the prominent Lebanese human rights activist, Wadih Al-Asmar, reveal that Daher and his predecessor, Merhi, turned to Beirut’s courts to help dispose of the dangerous goods multiple times from 2014 onwards. “In our memos 19320/2014 dated 5/12/2014 and 5/6/2015 […] we requested that your honor order the responsible Port Authorities to re-export Ammonium Nitrate that was taken off the Rhosus ship and placed in Customs hangar number 12 in Beirut port,” Daher wrote in 2017.At points, he even offered to sell the dangerous cargo to the Lebanese army, according to the court documents, but to no avail.Daher confirmed to CNN earlier on Wednesday that his office sent “a total of six letters to the legal authorities” but that the authorities never responded to any of their letters. “The Port Authority should not have allowed the ship to offload the chemicals into the port,” he said. “The chemicals were originally going to Mozambique, not Lebanon.”On Wednesday, the Director General of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem told local television channel OTV: “We stored the material in warehouse number 12 at Beirut port in accordance with a court order. We knew that they were dangerous materials, but not to that extent.” Kraytem too said that the issue of removing the explosive material had been brought up by State Security and Customs — but that the issue had not been “resolved.” “Customs and State Security sent letters [to the authorities] asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this issue to be resolved, but to no avail,” Kraytem said. Maintenance was conducted on the warehouse door just hours before the blast on Tuesday, he added. “We were asked to fix a door of the warehouse by State Security and we did that at noon, but what occurred in the afternoon I have no idea,” he said.The aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, August 5. The aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, August 5. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThe aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, August 5. Hide Caption 1 of 38Lebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday. Hundreds of people have been reported missing.Lebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday. Hundreds of people have been reported missing. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday. Hundreds of people have been reported missing.Hide Caption 2 of 38Damage is seen inside an apartment on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.Damage is seen inside an apartment on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDamage is seen inside an apartment on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.Hide Caption 3 of 38Debris hangs from a damaged facade.Debris hangs from a damaged facade. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDebris hangs from a damaged facade.Hide Caption 4 of 38A woman walks over rubble in her apartment on Wednesday.A woman walks over rubble in her apartment on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman walks over rubble in her apartment on Wednesday.Hide Caption 5 of 38This satellite image, obtained by CNN from Planet Labs Inc., shows a massive crater at the site of Tuesday's explosion. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/world/satellite-images-beirut-explosion-before-after-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">See the before-and-after pictures</a>This satellite image, obtained by CNN from Planet Labs Inc., shows a massive crater at the site of Tuesday's explosion. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/world/satellite-images-beirut-explosion-before-after-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">See the before-and-after pictures</a> Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThis satellite image, obtained by CNN from Planet Labs Inc., shows a massive crater at the site of Tuesday’s explosion. See the before-and-after picturesHide Caption 6 of 38An injured man sits next to a restaurant in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood on Wednesday.An injured man sits next to a restaurant in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutAn injured man sits next to a restaurant in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood on Wednesday.Hide Caption 7 of 38Lebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday.Lebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday.Hide Caption 8 of 38Debris litters the floor of the Lebanese Parliament on Wednesday.Debris litters the floor of the Lebanese Parliament on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDebris litters the floor of the Lebanese Parliament on Wednesday.Hide Caption 9 of 38Beirut was declared a "disaster city" by authorities on Wednesday. Beirut was declared a "disaster city" by authorities on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutBeirut was declared a “disaster city” by authorities on Wednesday. Hide Caption 10 of 38A woman looks out of the collapsed facade of a Beirut apartment on Wednesday.A woman looks out of the collapsed facade of a Beirut apartment on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman looks out of the collapsed facade of a Beirut apartment on Wednesday.Hide Caption 11 of 38The Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael sits in ruins.The Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael sits in ruins. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThe Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael sits in ruins.Hide Caption 12 of 38A Lebanese army helicopter flies over Beirut on Wednesday.A Lebanese army helicopter flies over Beirut on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA Lebanese army helicopter flies over Beirut on Wednesday.Hide Caption 13 of 38A damaged hospital room is seen on Wednesday.A damaged hospital room is seen on Wednesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA damaged hospital room is seen on Wednesday.Hide Caption 14 of 38People walk Wednesday along a road littered with debris and abandoned vehicles.People walk Wednesday along a road littered with debris and abandoned vehicles. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople walk Wednesday along a road littered with debris and abandoned vehicles.Hide Caption 15 of 38A helicopter fights a fire Tuesday at the scene of the explosion.A helicopter fights a fire Tuesday at the scene of the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA helicopter fights a fire Tuesday at the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 16 of 38A nurse takes care of three babies in a damaged Beirut hospital on Tuesday.A nurse takes care of three babies in a damaged Beirut hospital on Tuesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA nurse takes care of three babies in a damaged Beirut hospital on Tuesday.Hide Caption 17 of 38Rescue crews search a street for survivors  on Tuesday night. "People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones, and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity," Health Minister Hamad Hassan <a href="https://www.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/lebanon-beirut-explosion-live-updates-dle-intl/h_191ad60f239ae9b49e4332022ce8db8c" target="_blank">told the Reuters news agency.</a> "We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages."Rescue crews search a street for survivors  on Tuesday night. "People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones, and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity," Health Minister Hamad Hassan <a href="https://www.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/lebanon-beirut-explosion-live-updates-dle-intl/h_191ad60f239ae9b49e4332022ce8db8c" target="_blank">told the Reuters news agency.</a> "We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages." Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRescue crews search a street for survivors on Tuesday night. “People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones, and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hassan told the Reuters news agency. “We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”Hide Caption 18 of 38A wounded man is helped as he walks through debris following the explosion.A wounded man is helped as he walks through debris following the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded man is helped as he walks through debris following the explosion.Hide Caption 19 of 38Smoke rises after the blast. This image was obtained from a video on social media.Smoke rises after the blast. This image was obtained from a video on social media. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutSmoke rises after the blast. This image was obtained from a video on social media.Hide Caption 20 of 38Lebanese Red Cross officers carry an injured woman on Tuesday night.Lebanese Red Cross officers carry an injured woman on Tuesday night. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese Red Cross officers carry an injured woman on Tuesday night.Hide Caption 21 of 38A building's facade is shattered after Tuesday's explosion.A building's facade is shattered after Tuesday's explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA building’s facade is shattered after Tuesday’s explosion.Hide Caption 22 of 38Wounded people wait to received help outside a hospital. Emergency wards have been inundated.Wounded people wait to received help outside a hospital. Emergency wards have been inundated. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutWounded people wait to received help outside a hospital. Emergency wards have been inundated.Hide Caption 23 of 38An investigation into the explosion was announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.An investigation into the explosion was announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutAn investigation into the explosion was announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.Hide Caption 24 of 38People run for cover following the explosion. Bachar Ghattas, an eyewitness, described scenes of chaos: "You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged. It is like an apocalypse."People run for cover following the explosion. Bachar Ghattas, an eyewitness, described scenes of chaos: "You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged. It is like an apocalypse." Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople run for cover following the explosion. Bachar Ghattas, an eyewitness, described scenes of chaos: “You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged. It is like an apocalypse.”Hide Caption 25 of 38Injured people sit on a street after the blast.Injured people sit on a street after the blast. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutInjured people sit on a street after the blast.Hide Caption 26 of 38Lebanese soldiers watch as a helicopter fights a fire at the scene of the explosion.Lebanese soldiers watch as a helicopter fights a fire at the scene of the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers watch as a helicopter fights a fire at the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 27 of 38A man sits near the site of the blast.A man sits near the site of the blast. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man sits near the site of the blast.Hide Caption 28 of 38Firefighters work at the scene on Tuesday.Firefighters work at the scene on Tuesday. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutFirefighters work at the scene on Tuesday.Hide Caption 29 of 38A wounded person is carried after the blast.A wounded person is carried after the blast. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded person is carried after the blast.Hide Caption 30 of 38The explosion was near the port in the Lebanese capital.The explosion was near the port in the Lebanese capital. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThe explosion was near the port in the Lebanese capital.Hide Caption 31 of 38Smoke billows following the explosion.Smoke billows following the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutSmoke billows following the explosion.Hide Caption 32 of 38A wounded man walks near the scene.A wounded man walks near the scene. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded man walks near the scene.Hide Caption 33 of 38People gather by damaged buildings after the blast.People gather by damaged buildings after the blast. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople gather by damaged buildings after the blast.Hide Caption 34 of 38Firefighters use a water hose on flaming debris.Firefighters use a water hose on flaming debris. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutFirefighters use a water hose on flaming debris.Hide Caption 35 of 38Red smoke rises after the explosion, which could be felt for miles. "What I felt was that it was an earthquake," Beirut resident Rania Masri told CNN.Red smoke rises after the explosion, which could be felt for miles. "What I felt was that it was an earthquake," Beirut resident Rania Masri told CNN. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRed smoke rises after the explosion, which could be felt for miles. “What I felt was that it was an earthquake,” Beirut resident Rania Masri told CNN.Hide Caption 36 of 38People walk near the scene of the explosion.People walk near the scene of the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople walk near the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 37 of 38A man reacts at the scene soon after the explosion.A man reacts at the scene soon after the explosion. Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man reacts at the scene soon after the explosion.Hide Caption 38 of 3801 beirut aftermath 080515 beirut aftermath 080514 beirut aftermath 080504 beirut aftermath 080521 beirut aftermath 080501 Port Beirut ZOOM After19 beirut aftermath 080520 beirut aftermath 080522 beirut aftermath 080518 beirut aftermath 0805 RESTRICTED09 beirut aftermath 080505 beirut aftermath 080510 beirut aftermath 080516 beirut aftermath 080503 beirut aftermath 080526 beirut explosion 080408 beirut aftermath 080529 beirut explosion 080425 beirut explosion 080409 beirut explosion 080430 beirut explosion 080421 beirut explosion 0804 RESTRICTED22 beirut explosion 080418 beirut explosion 080412 beirut explosion 080431 beirut explosion 0804 RESTRICTED16 beirut explosion 080424 beirut explosion 0804 RESTRICTED14 beirut explosion 080419 beirut explosion 080427 beirut explosion 080406 beirut explosion 080403 beirut explosion 0804RESTRICTED 07 beirut explosion 080411 beirut explosion 080415 beirut explosion 080405 beirut explosion 080413 beirut explosion 0804 Ammonium nitrateAmmonium nitrate has been implicated in deadly industrial explosions in the past, and is known to require careful handling. “Poorly stored ammonium nitrate is notorious for explosions — for example in Oppau, Germany; in Galveston Bay, Texas; and more recently at West in Waco, Texas; and Tianjin in China,” Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, told the Science Media Centre. “This is a catastrophic regulatory failure because regulations on the storage of ammonium nitrate are typically very clear. The idea that such a quantity would have been left unattended for six years beggars belief and was an accident waiting to happen.”Perhaps the closest comparison to Beirut’s explosion, in terms of scale, is a blast in Texas City in 1947, which was caused by 2,300 US tons (about 2,087 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate. The resulting fire caused an explosion and additional fires that damaged more than 1,000 buildings and killed nearly 400 people, according to the website of the Texas Historical Association.Previous disasters linked to the chemical have led to improved regulations for its safe storage, Associate Professor Stewart Walker, from the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told CNN said; such rules mean it tends to be kept away from population centers.”Both of these things will be questioned in the investigation into the Beirut explosion, because they had such a large amount of ammonium nitrate, which may not have been stored appropriately, and in an area where there is a large number of people,” he added.Read more on this story

Live updates: Beirut explosion rocks Lebanon’s capital cityWhat we know about the Beirut blastIn pictures: Huge explosion rocks BeirutAmmonium nitrate stored in a warehouse linked to catastrophic Beirut explosion

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