The cars closest to the site of the explosion were reduced to scrapyard metal, their wailing alarms and flashing lights adding to the chaos.
Exhausted firemen were rushing to the scene, some searching for colleagues sent in earlier to put out the initial fire that was raging before the bigger explosion shook the city.
With the help of the security forces, civil defence teams scoured the area for corpses, as officers screamed at reporters who were trying to document the disaster.
"What are you taking pictures of? There are corpses everywhere," said one of them.
The confirmed death toll stood at 73 at 02:00, but with more than 3 000 wounded and hospitals struggling to cope, a much higher final count seemed inevitable.
Members of the security forces broke down in tears when one of their colleagues was brought to them dead on a stretcher.
A fellow police officer pulled out a picture of the deceased with his fiancee, as his comrades wept.
'Don't know what to do'
A ship anchored off the port was ablaze from the mushroom of fire, causing panic among the authorities fearing the fuel onboard would trigger another tragedy.
Sitting on a sidewalk near the site of the blast, at least 10 crew members of two cargo ships damaged in the explosion were waiting to be treated by medics.
"The ship is sinking in the water, the explosion caused an opening in it, and there are serious injuries on board," said an Egyptian member of the crew of one of the ships, Mero Star.
"We heard firecrackers and we saw smoke coming out of a warehouse ... and after a few minutes the explosion happened," said another crew member, who asked not be named.
Syrian and Egyptian crew had arrived at the port on Tuesday on board a ship carrying cargo from Ukraine, and many were planning to head back home on Tuesday.
"From the day we set sail six months ago, we had been looking forward to this day of homecoming," said one Syrian seafarer.
Another Egyptian crew member said he was planning to go back home on Wednesday after months at sea.
"But I will not be able to," he told AFP. "I don't know what to do."