BEIRUT: A huge blaze in Beirut port on Thursday sparked fresh panic among residents in the Lebanese capital just one month after a massive explosion at the site killed and injured thousands of people.
The fire broke out at 1:30 p.m. in an oil and tire warehouse in the dock’s duty-free market sending plumes of smoke billowing out over the city’s skyline.
Port workers, still recovering from the shock of the Aug. 4 blast which left 192 people dead, fled their offices as emergency crews and the military battled to contain the blaze.
Traumatized Beirut citizens, many of them among the 300,000 displaced by August’s explosion of thousands of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, took to social media as news of the latest fire sent shockwaves of fear through nearby districts.
One poster said: “We can’t handle any more. We just can’t take a break in this country. I’m sorry I wanna leave Lebanon as soon as possible, I can’t stand this anymore.” In a tweet, another resident said: “Enough is enough.”
Streets surrounding the port emptied and workers restoring buildings damaged in the previous inferno quickly evacuated the area as the fire triggered fears of another blast, despite official reassurances that “there was no need to panic.”
For some, the government appeal for calm fell on deaf ears after Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hassan had previously claimed that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in the country was under control before the number of cases rocketed.
— Larissa Aoun (@LarissaAounSky) September 10, 2020
Army helicopters joined firefighters and Civil Defense teams in helping to extinguish the fire with crews from outside the capital racing to the scene with extra supplies of water.
Bassem Al-Qaisi, director general of Beirut’s port, said: “The fire was far from the site of the first blast. It took place in an area close to the highway and not near the marine docks.”
Soldiers cleared nearby streets and stopped people from using drones to film the incident so as to allow army choppers to operate safely.
Lebanon’s Minister of Justice Marie-Claude Najm said that the blaze was caused by “welding work taking place near the warehouse. What happened is the result of negligence and inexperience.”
She added that while action would be taken by the Public Prosecution, “unfortunately, what is done is done.”
General prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, Judge Ghassan Oueidat, assigned the military police, army intelligence, and other relevant authorities to launch an investigation into Thursday’s fire.
Director General of Civil Defense Brig. Gen. Raymond Khattar, said: “Highly flammable substances, such as rubber and oils, were burning, and this necessitated taking exceptional measures in handling the situation.”
Former Lebanese minister, Richard Kouyoumjian, said the port fire was the result of “the corruption, negligence, and ignorance of the state’s departments and institutions, not fate. This is also an indication of the failure of the political authority, and we do not have to accept it, but we must change it.”
MP Fadi Karam told Arab News: “What happened today (Thursday) represents the total removal of the government from the positions it maintains through its repressive apparatuses. This government must leave as soon as possible.
“Those who have been put in charge of the country are failures. The Lebanese people are afflicted by their government and not by the events taking place. This authority takes Lebanon hostage and compromises the lives of the people.”
On Tuesday, Judge Fadi Sawan, who is leading investigations into the deadly Aug. 4 port blast, concluded hearing the statements of two witnesses, caretaker minister of public works and transport, Michel Najjar, and general director of state security, Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.
According to judicial sources, the hearing focused on, “the reasons for the delay in taking the necessary and urgent measures to remove the large amount of ammonium nitrate (2,750 tons) from Hangar 12 before it exploded on Aug. 4 and turned Beirut into a disaster city.”
Sawan was next Monday due to hear the testimony of general security chief, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, as well as those of political, security, and judicial officials and port managers. Last week he took evidence from Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Hassan Diab.