BEIRUT: Firefighters Thursday extinguished a massive blaze that broke out at Beirut Port, near the site of the Aug. 4 explosion that devastated half the capital and killed at least 192 people.
Hours after the fire erupted first responders extinguished all flames in the vicinity. A thick plume of smoke covered the city in a black cloud, blocking out the sun and causing residents still traumatized from the port explosion to panic and evacuate the area.
The exact cause of the fire is not yet clear, an Army source told The Daily Star. Caretaker Public Works Minister Michel Najjar, who is in charge of overseeing the port, said preliminary information indicated that the fire had been caused by sparks from a welding tool used at the warehouse.
Defense teams and fire fighters had been dispatched in the early afternoon to put out the large flames. An Army helicopter flew over the site and dumped water over the blaze.
The source confirmed that the fire was coming from Warehouse 19 in the duty-free area in the port – already damaged from the explosion – which contained oil and tire shipments. Newly appointed Director-General of Beirut Port Bassem al-Kaissi later confirmed that the warehouse where the fire started belonged to a company that imported plant oil. The blaze then spread to tires stored nearby.
The August explosion had leveled most of the port and incinerated warehouses, containers and ships in the vicinity. Thursday’s blaze seemed to have ignited in a structure already teetering on the verge of collapse.
The fire spread to a warehouse where thousands of food parcels and 0.5 million liters of oil were being stored, reported ICRC regional director for the Middle East Fabrizio Carboni. "Our humanitarian operation risks to be seriously disrupted.” Carboni said in a tweet.
A video circulating social media showed workers at the port running away in fear as soon as the fire broke out, a chilling reminder of last month’s blast that killed dozens of port employees and 10 firefighters.
HIGHER DEFENSE COUNCIL CALLS FOR AUDIT
Five weeks after the catastrophic Beirut explosion, the Higher Defense Council called for an audit of warehouses and containers at the port.
The council in an emergency meeting said hazardous materials in the port and airport warehouses “must be destroyed or disposed of in accordance with the laws and regulations ... to avoid any catastrophic accidents that may occur as a result of their storage.”
Thursday’s fire was the second blaze at the port this week. On Tuesday, a smaller fire erupted but was quickly extinguished. Only a few days erelier, the Army said it had discovered 4.35 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port, the same explosive material that caused the port blast. The Army said the material has since been destroyed.
President Michel Aoun during the meeting said that “It is no longer acceptable to make mistakes of any kind that lead to such a fire, especially after the disaster caused by the first fire.”
“Today's fire may be an act of deliberate sabotage or the result of technical error, ignorance or negligence,” Aoun said. “The cause must be known as soon as possible and those responsible should be held accountable.”
Aoun called for the formation of a committee to be headed by the public works minister. The committee will include representatives from the security forces and the port company, to create “new operating procedures at the port and ensure public safety in it,” Aoun said.
STILL REELING FROM TRAUMA
Majed Hassanein, 49, who was leaving Beirut with his wife and children by car, told Reuters, “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again.
He said his son was still suffering from shock from the blast that ruined a swath of the capital and shattered glass across the city, leaving at least 300,000 residents homeless.
“Another huge fire at the Beirut port. Do we open all the windows to guard against another blast or close them to guard against the toxic fumes? The sky is black black above and my lungs hurt. (So does my heart),” tweeted Lina Mounzer.
“Insane fire at the port, causing a panic all across Beirut. We just can’t catch a break,” Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub wrote on Twitter.
CALLS FOR INVESTIGATIONS
Lebanon’s Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat called on security forces to conduct an immediate investigation into the cause of the fire after being ordered to do so by caretaker Justice Minister Marie Claude Najem.
“We instructed all security agencies, including the Army Intellgence, General Security, State Security, Information Division, Customs, Civil Defense and the Beirut Fire Brigade to carry out the necessary investigations ... to find out the causes of the sudden fire,” Oueidat said in a statement.
There have been no updates or public statements made by officials on opaque and slow moving investigations for the Beirut Port explosion which happened over a month ago.
“Beirut suffocates in the smoke of negligence and the feeling of the absence of the state,” tweeted former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who held the position for a second term from 2014 until 2020. The nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate which caused the devastating explosion had been stored haphazardly in the port by authorities since 2014.