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No, photos don’t show people flying through air after Beirut explosion

Just after 6pm on 4 August 2020 a massive explosion devastated Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, killing more than 130 people, injuring thousands more and causing an estimated US$15 billion in damage.

Videos of the blast quickly spread around the world, dominating news and social media.

The explosion is thought to have been caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the port of Beirut. The resulting shockwave levelled buildings. 

One Facebook post, posted the following day, shared three crops of a photo of pink-tinged clouds in the air. 

A group of objects, circled in red in the first photo, appear suspended in front of the clouds. Its caption reads: People flying during the BEIRUT,LEBANON explosion????.”

Was this photo really taken in Beirut, and what is seen flying through the air?

Yes, image from Beirut

In the versions shared on social media, it is difficult to tell where the photo was taken as much of the skyline has been cropped out. 

But a larger version of the photo was published in some early news reports on the blast. In the uncropped image it is easier to make out the skyline. 

Beirut’s famous Sky Gate building is visible in the bottom right of the image. The Rizk Tower can also be identified, near the Sky Gate, with its distinctive windows and rooftop radio mast.

The photo was shared widely in news of the explosion. But at some point a version started circulating with a red circle drawn around the objects in the sky. Captions suggest it shows people thrown through the air by the force of the blast.

The earliest versions Africa Check could find making this claim were all shared from outside Lebanon.

They include posts from Palestinian and Egyptian Facebook groups, and a tweet from what appears to be a Yemeni account.

Several news sites based in Yemen seem to have spread the tweeted claim, and at least one quotes the tweet word for word, but does not credit the original Twitter user.

Almost certainly birds, not people, in air

The pink-tinged cloud in the photo is a clue it was taken after – not during – the explosion.

Footage shows that the blast itself caused a violent shockwave, a mushroom cloud, and left a plume of thick smoke in its wake.

Photos of the plume of smoke show that it was initially dark and turbulent, and became pinker and softer as it drifted on the wind.

The cloud’s distinctive colour is caused by nitrogen dioxide, according to one expert interviewed by the BBC. It is one of the potentially dangerous gases produced when ammonium nitrate explodes.

So the objects in front of the cloud were not thrown into the sky by the shockwave, as the social media posts claim. The photo is from after the explosion, when the shockwave had passed.

The most likely explanation is that the objects are birds. They appear to be flying in an aerodynamic V formation, from right to left in the photo.

Social media users have also been quick to suggest this theory. There are no credible reports that the photo shows people tossed into the air by the explosion. – Keegan Leech

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