Trucks destroyed by blast are pictured at Beirut port.
Trucks destroyed by blast are pictured at Beirut port.

When Boris Prokoshev, a former sea captain spending his retirement years in a Russian village, woke up and found an email saying a ship he once commanded had carried the ammonium nitrate that blew up swathes of Beirut, he was astonished.

The email was from a journalist, he said, and titled with the name of the MV Rhosus, which he had captained on a voyage that he was never paid for.

"I opened my inbox and saw a letter about the Rhosus; I thought maybe they were sending me money, my salary," he said.

The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that blew up in Beirut's port wasn't supposed to have been in Lebanon at all. When the Rhosus set sail from the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi, it was bound for the Mozambican port of Beira.

But it made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the Russian shipowner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon.

The additional cargo proved too heavy for the Rhosus and the crew refused to take it on. The Rhosus was soon impounded by the Lebanese authorities for failing to pay port fees, and never left the port again.

The cargo was transferred to a port warehouse only after the crew disembarked and headed back to Ukraine in 2014, Prokoshev said. It remained there ever since -- until it detonated on Tuesday.

According to the captain, the ship sank several years after they left. It had a hole in the hull, and the crew, while on it, had to regularly pump water out to keep it afloat.

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