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Fire breaks out at Beirut port silos on anniversary of deadly explosion

Fire breaks out at Beirut port silos on anniversary of deadly explosion
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A fire in a grain silo marks the two-year mark of the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut.
A fire in a grain silo marks the two-year mark of the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut. (Manu Farnini for The Washington Post)

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BEIRUT – In a day of nationwide mourning, Beirut’s port burned. The lull of chirping birds and rushing water on Thursday was broken by periodic snaps of flames attacking silos on Lebanon’s waterfront.

It was two years to the day after a fire in a port hangar set off one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, an explosion that killed 200 people and leveled large areas of the capital. The current fire is causing anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and those living near the port, for whom it is recalling one of the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others were marching to an overlook to mark the anniversary and again to demand justice and accountability when parts of the silo began to fall.

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

Grain stored in silos was baking, fermenting and toasting in the blazing sun and intense humidity. Three weeks ago, oil from the grain started a fire, which has since been gutting and licking at parts of the 157-foot-tall structure.

On Sunday, four of the 16 silos in the north block of the port started collapsing. On Thursday, the fire continued to undermine the structures. Four more silos tipped to the side and then fell, throwing a cloud of sand-colored dust hundreds of feet away from the marchers.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who worked alongside volunteers to monitor the structure, said the southern block is structurally sound. These 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.

“Both laser scanning and inclinometer measurements show that it is stable,” he said.

In April, the government, fearing that the grain silos would eventually collapse, announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some families of victims have argued against the move, calling for them to be preserved as memorials instead.

Lebanon expressed grief and anger over the victims of the Beirut blast

Their protest is emblematic of the outcry over the thwarted pursuit of justice: activists, parliamentarians and others are demanding that the silo be left alone until an independent investigation into the cause of the explosion takes place.

A judicial inquiry that began in 2020 has stalled: the first judge leading the investigation accused four officials of negligence for six years in neglecting 2,750 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate, during which the material was stored on the waterfront. Warehouses alongside fireworks and paint thinners on the edge of a crowded city.

The judge was dismissed from the case after complaints were filed against two former ministers, alleging that he lacked impartiality in selecting prominent figures to appease an angry public.

The judge who followed him, Judge Tarek Bitar, faced resistance from officials he tried to question, arguing that they had immunity or lacked authority. They filed a flood of complaints in court seeking his removal. As a result his work has been suspended: the courts that are set to rule on the charges are on hiatus between judges’ retirements.

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

Saliba won a seat in parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates called “Force of Change”. They capitalized on the demand for a new voice in a legislature that had been ruled for decades mainly by the elderly men of a few families.

Saliba said the silo must stand as a witness to the disaster, not touching the stable people until justice is served.

“The government says there is an economic loss in the lost basin,” he told The Washington Post. But the priority, he said, is to provide justice to the family.

“We are saying [ministers]no matter what happens, the silos must remain upright and up,” he said. “They remain so that they bear witness to our collective memory.”

Thousands of people gathered on a bridge surrounding the port on Thursday. They observed a moment of silence when the explosion occurred at 6:07 PM. Then, as helicopters tipped water containers over the smoldering remains of freshly fallen silos in the background, the mother of one of the victims addressed the crowd.

“We want to know the truth. It is our right to know that those responsible for this heinous crime will be held accountable!” Mirili Khoury shouted into a microphone. His son Ilyas (15) was killed in the blast.

“It was my son’s and all the victims’ right to live and be safe,” she said, her voice breaking on the word “safe.”

Six months after the massive explosion in Beirut, the official investigation has been suspended

Men and women, standing under a large Lebanese flag marked with red spots representing the blood of those lost, wept silently.

A woman leads the gathering with an oath.

“I swear by their pure blood, by the tears of mothers, siblings and fathers and children and elders,” he read in a statement, “we will not despair, we will not acquiesce, we will not yield, we will not back down. , We will not be complacent, we will not be underestimated. We are here, and we will be here until the end.”

With each promise, hands are raised and the audience chants “I swear.”

Earlier on Thursday, some family members went to the port to pay their respects to the victims. Port security officials seemed overwhelmed by the weight of the day — some resenting the attention the silos and the port still receive. But others felt differently.

A soldier stood guard among the mounds of dented metal crates, thickly tangled ropes and wrecked cars, rusted aerosol cans and curtain rods in their packaging. Three ships that were in the harbor at the time of the explosion lie on their sides. A pot, clear of water, sits rusting on the concrete.

The soldier, asking if all the rubble on the hill was from the explosion, hung up. “And it will remain,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Look, it’s a mountain of garbage. Who’s going to remove it?” Asked if he knew about 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 silo. “When we found his car, it was so big,” he said, holding his hand about 20 inches away.

He had no opinion on whether the south block should be kept as a memorial or demolished.

He said it didn’t feel strange to work in a place where he lost a friend.

“You can use it. It’s life,” he said. “Those who can’t be family. For example, I’ve known him for a year. They lost their son.”

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