Silos on fire in Beirut port on the anniversary of the deadly explosion

A grain silo caught fire two years after the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut.
A grain silo caught fire two years after the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut. (Mano Fernini for The Washington Post)

Suspension

BEIRUT – On a nationwide day of mourning, the port of Beirut burned. The calm of chirping birds and falling waters on Thursday was broken by the periodic sudden fires that attack the silos on Lebanon’s waterfront.

Two years have passed since the day after a fire in a port hangar caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, one that killed 200 people and flattened swathes of the capital. The current fire is causing anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and those who live near the harbor, who are remembering the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others were marching in the direction of disregard to celebrate the anniversary and again demand justice and accountability when parts of the silos began to fall.

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

Grain stored in silos was baked under the scorching sun and intense humidity, fermented and roasted. Three weeks ago, oils extracted from the grains ignited a fire that has been growing and licking the ruined sides of some of the 157-foot-tall structures ever since.

On Sunday, four of the 16 silos in the port’s northern block began to collapse. On Thursday, the flames continued to weaken the structures. Four other silos turned to the side and then fell, throwing a cloud of sand-colored dust hundreds of meters away from the protesters.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered to work alongside lifeguards to monitor the structure, said the southern block is structurally sound. Those silos were built later, he said, are in better condition with stronger foundations and were mostly empty at the time of the 2020 eruption. 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 the granaries would eventually collapse, announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some families of the victims argued against the move, calling instead for it to be preserved as a memorial site.

Their protest is emblematic of protesting the intermittent pursuit of justice: activists, members of parliament and others are calling for the silos to be left alone until an independent investigation is conducted into the causes of the explosion.

A judicial investigation that began in 2020 has slowly stalled: The first judge to lead the investigation charged four officials with negligence of ignoring 2,750 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate for six years, during which time the substance was stored on the waterfront in a warehouse next to fireworks and paint thinners, on the edge of a crowded city.

The judge was dismissed from the case after two of the accused former ministers filed a complaint, claiming he showed a lack of impartiality in selecting prominent figures to indict to placate an angry public.

The judge who was followed by Judge Tariq Bitar faced resistance from the officials he tried to interrogate, arguing that they enjoyed immunity or that he lacked authority. They flooded the courts with complaints calling for his removal. As a result, his work has been suspended: Courts set up to hear complaints are stalled amid the judges’ retirement.

“Our demands are clear,” said Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist and newly elected member of Parliament. The first requirement is the independence of the judiciary so that people at least feel that the victims and their lives have not been in vain.”

Saliba won a seat in parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates dubbed the Forces for Change. They have benefited from the demand for new voices in a legislature largely governed for decades by old men from a few families.

Saliba said that the silos should stand as a witness to the disaster, and the silos should not be touched until justice is served.

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

“we say [ministers]And no matter what happens, the silos must remain straight and high.” “They remain until they are a testament to our collective memory.”

Thousands gathered on a bridge overlooking the port on Thursday. At 6:07 p.m., the time of the explosion, they held a minute’s silence. Then, as helicopters in the background flip containers of water over the smoldering remains of the newly fallen silos, the victim’s mother addresses the crowd.

We want to know the truth. It is our right to know that those responsible for this horrific crime are held accountable! Mireille Khoury screamed into the microphone. Her 15-year-old son, Elias, was killed in the explosion.

“It was the right of my son and all the victims to live, to be safe,” she said, in a voice that broke the word “safe.”

The men and women cried silently as they stood under a large Lebanese flag bearing red spots representing the blood of the missing.

A woman led the gathering in a section.

“I swear by their pure blood, by the tears of mothers, brothers, fathers, children and old,” I read from a statement, “You will not despair, we will not yield, we will not comply, we will not retreat, we will not indulge and we will not underestimate him. We are here and we will remain here until the end of time.”

With each promise, listeners with arms raised chanted the phrase “I swear.”

Earlier Thursday, some family members visited the port to pay their respects to the dead. Port security officers seemed unfazed by the heaviness of the day – and some expressed alarm at the attention the silos and port continue to receive. But others felt differently.

One soldier stood guard amid piles of dented metal boxes, thick tangled ropes, wrecked cars, rusty aerosol cans and curtain rods still in their packs. Three ships that were in port at the time of the explosion are still lying on their sides. And one pot devoid of water kept rusting on the concrete.

When the soldier asked if the mountains of debris towering above him were caused by the explosion, he nodded. He said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media and “will remain”. “Look, it’s a mountain of trash. Who’s going to remove it?” When asked if he knew there were plans to clear the site, he shook his head. “Who can afford it?”

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

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

He said it was not unusual to work near a place where he had lost a friend.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said. “Those who can’t are the families. For example, I’ve known him for a year. They lost their son.”

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