Beirut port silos catch fire again on anniversary of deadly blast

A grain silo is on fire within two years of the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut.
A grain silo is on fire within two years of the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut. (Manu Ferneini for The Washington Post)

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BEIRUT — On a day of national mourning, the port of Beirut burned. The calm of birdsong and splashing water on Thursday was interrupted by the periodic crackling of flames attacking silos on the Lebanese coast.

It was exactly two years after a fire in a hangar at the port triggered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, an explosion that killed 200 people and leveled vast swathes of the capital. The current fire is generating anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and those who live near the port, for whom it is remembering one of the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others were marching to a viewpoint to commemorate the anniversary and again demand justice and accountability when parts of the silos began to fall.

The remains of silos in Beirut’s seaport collapsed on August 4, the second anniversary of the deadly explosion that destroyed much of the city. (Video: Reuters)

The grains stored in the silos had been baking under a scorching sun and intense humidity, fermenting and roasting. Three weeks ago, the oils in the beans started a fire, which has since been growing and licking at the gutted sides of some of the 157-foot-tall structures.

On Sunday, four of the 16 silos in the north block of the port began to collapse. On Thursday, the flames continued to weaken structures. Four more silos tipped to one side and then fell, spewing a cloud of sand-colored dust a few hundred feet away from the protesters.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered to work alongside rescuers to monitor the structure, said the southern block is structurally sound. Those silos were built later, are in better condition, have stronger foundations and were mostly empty at the time of the 2020 explosion, he said. There is no fire burning there.

“Measurements by both laser scanning and inclinometers show that it is stable,” he said.

In April the government, fearing that all the grain silos would eventually collapse, announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some families of the victims have opposed the move, calling instead for it to be preserved as a memorial site.

Their protest is a symbol of the clamor for an end to the search for justice: activists, parliamentarians and others are demanding that the silos be left alone until an independent investigation into the causes of the explosion is carried out.

A judicial investigation that began in 2020 has slowly come to a halt: the first judge leading the investigation charged four officials with negligence for ignoring 2,750 tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate for six years, during which time the material was stored on the boardwalk. in a warehouse next to fireworks and paint thinner, on the outskirts of a crowded city.

The judge was dismissed from the case after two of the former ministers he was accusing filed a complaint, alleging that he had shown a lack of neutrality by choosing prominent figures to impeach in order to appease an angry public.

The judge who succeeded him, Judge Tarek Bitar, faced resistance from the officials he tried to question, arguing that they have immunity or that he lacks authority. They flooded the courts with complaints calling for his removal. As a result, his work has been put on hold: the courts that were set up to rule on the complaints are on hiatus amid the retirement of judges.

“Our demands are clear,” said Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist and newly elected member of parliament. “And the main demand is the independence of the judiciary so that people at least feel that the victims and their souls were not wasted.”

Saliba won a seat in parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates called “the forces of change.” They have capitalized on the demand for new voices in a legislature ruled for decades largely by older men from a few families.

Saliba said that the silos must remain as witnesses to the disaster, the stables must not be touched until justice is done.

“The government says there is an economic loss from the lost watershed area,” he told The Washington Post. But the priority, she said, is justice for the families.

“We are saying [ministers]whatever happens, the silos will have to stay straight and up,” he said. “They remain to be a testimony of our collective memory.”

Thousands gathered on a bridge overlooking the harbor on Thursday. At 6:07 pm, the time of the explosion, they observed a moment of silence. Then, as helicopters in the background dropped containers of water onto the smoldering remains of the recently fallen silos, the mother of one victim addressed the crowd.

“We want to know the truth. It is our right to know that those responsible for this heinous crime are held accountable!” Mireille Khoury yelled into a microphone. Her 15-year-old son Elias was killed in the blast.

“It was the right of my son and of all the victims to live and be safe,” she said, her voice cracking at the word “safe.”

Men and women, standing under a large Lebanese flag marked with red stains to represent the blood of the lost, silently wept.

A woman led the meeting in an oath.

“I swear by his pure blood, by the tears of mothers and brothers and fathers and sons and elders,” he read in a statement, “that we will not despair, we will not consent, we will not comply, we will not back down. , we will not be pleased, we will not underestimate it. We are here, and here we will stay until the end of time.”

With each promise, listeners with raised arms repeated the words “I swear.”

Early Thursday, some relatives visited the port to pay their respects to the dead. The port security officers seemed unperturbed by the weight of the day; some expressed annoyance at the attention the silos and the port still receive. But others felt differently.

A soldier stood guard amid mounds of dented metal boxes, thick tangled ropes and wrecked cars, rusted aerosol cans and curtain rods still in their packaging. Three ships that were in port when the explosion occurred are still there, lying on their sides. A boat, thrown out of the water, rusts on the concrete.

The soldier, when asked if the mountains of debris towering above him were all from the explosion, nodded. “And he will stay,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Look at it, it’s a mountain of garbage. Who is going to remove it? When asked if he was aware of the plans to clean up the site, he shook his head. “Who can afford it?”

The soldier lost a friend in the explosion, a comrade who was stationed near the silos. “When we found his vehicle, it was this big,” he said, holding his hands about 20 inches apart.

He had no opinion on whether the South Block should be kept as a monument or demolished.

He said it didn’t feel weird working so close to a place where he lost a friend.

“You get used to it. It’s life,” he said. “The ones who can’t are the families. For example, I knew him for a year. They lost their son.”

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