SAFRA, Lebanon: Several floors of a carpet factory building in Safra, north of Beirut, caught fire and collapsed Friday as Civil Defense personnel worked to extinguish the flames. At least five workers at the manufacturer were injured.
The fire erupted on the east side of the last floor of the five-story Byblos Carpets factory building shortly after 9 a.m. but the flames soon engulfed the lower levels of the structure. An hour later, the top floors collapsed, raining chunks of debris down onto the street below.
Five factory workers, who were evacuated from the building, are being treated by the Lebanese Red Cross for respiratory problems.
Two Lebanese Army helicopters dispatched to the scene were assisting over 20 fire trucks on the ground to put out the flames.
In the afternoon, Civil Defense personnel were able to enter the building and worked relentlessly to isolate the fire from the factory's oil and diesel containers located on the first floor.
There were mounting fears that the flames could reach the containers.
“I fear that if the remains of the fifth floor collapse they might hit oil canisters on the first floor of the building,” Silva Vereshitian, executive director of Byblos Carpets, told The Daily Star.
Firefighters have sprayed the canisters with firefighting foam to prevent them from reaching extreme temperatures.
Vereshitian also called on the Civil Defense to put more effort to try and put out the fire to lessen the damage.
"They should dispatch more trucks and people. This is not enough," she said.
Brig. Gen Raymond Khattar, the head of Civil Defense, defended his team and said the personnel were doing all they could to put out the fire given the defense's limited capabilities.
“What we are trying to do is lessen the damage and we are doing the best we can,” Khattar told The Daily Star, adding that the factory's storage room is on the upper levels.
The building, owned by the Festekedjian and Obegi families, was constructed in 1958 and over 100 workers are employed at the factory.
Nazareth Sabounjian, Treasury Secretary of the Lebanese Association of Industrialists, estimated the complex was between 10,000 and 12,000 square meters and that the damages to the building could amount to $80 million.
At around 2 p.m., fire fighters put out 60 percent of the fire as helicopters flew more frequently over the complex to drop some 15,000 liters of water per trip.
Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian arrived at the scene and thanked the Civil Defense on their efforts and said he wait for the investigation to reveal the circumstances surrounding the incident.
"Accidents like this happen and we have placed several new safety regulation for factories to abide by [to prevent such incidents]," Sabounjian said, adding that the ministry lacked the man-power to send out inspectors to each factory.
Sabounjian also expressed anger at a member of the Safra municipality who the minister said had described the factory as ruining the image of the area and said the owner is "an Armenian."
"I will hold him accountable for what he said ... this kind of talk is not acceptable," he said.
The fire sent thick plumes of smoke into the sky over most parts of the Safra and Jbeil.
"This is an environmental disaster," Doumet Kamel, head of the World Environment Party, told The Daily Star.
"There should be a study into the effects of the chemicals inside the factory on the environment," he added.