BEIRUT: Firefighters and civil defense workers were continuing their efforts on Friday to cool down a site at the Port of Beirut where a fire had broken out a day earlier, with white smoke billowing out and agencies estimating $4 million worth of losses as a result of the incident.
According to the army, the fire broke out in a warehouse containing tires and oil. The fire was due to the cutting of iron columns that had collapsed after a massive explosion on Aug. 4. Warehouse workers had wanted to remove the columns in order to pull out the goods trapped underneath. However sparks from the cutting fell on inflammable goods in the warehouse and caused a fire.
The military police, who are in charge of investigating the fire, have questioned 20 people including eyewitnesses.
The port has been under army control since Aug. 4, when the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse destroyed wheat silos, the port’s warehouse zone, Beirut waterfront and neighboring areas.
The explosion killed 192 civilians including children, in addition to 10 rescue workers and firefighters. It injured 6,000 civilians and displaced 300,000 people whose houses were either totally or partially destroyed. According to testimonies, nine people are still missing.
Col. Roger Khoury, who is commander of the army’s Engineering Regiment, said during a meeting with President Michel Aoun that 24 bodies had been retrieved from the site eight days after the Aug. 4 tragedy, including the bodies of nine firefighters and nine silo workers.
“During the search operation in the port we discovered 4,350 kilos of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse since 2004 or 2005, so they were destroyed in special fields. In addition, we discovered that there were warehouses which have been storing inflammable materials for the past 15 years, noting that 143 warehouses containing inflammable materials were checked,” he added.
Col. Youssef Haidar said that 1 million square meters of the port’s 1.4 million square meter area had been cleared, 15,000 tons of rubble had been removed and 20 tons of cargo had been sorted.
The port’s two disasters have been mainly handled by the fire services and civil defense.
Georges Abou Moussa, head of operations at Lebanese Civil Defense, said there were huge pressures on the team.
He went to Qartaba, northern Lebanon, to fight forest fires caused by unusually high temperatures. “We are working round the clock,” he told Arab News. “I had to move from the Port of Beirut to a region 2,000 meters high up in the mountains to fight forest fires. Yes, we are exhausted but we did not lose our enthusiasm, this is our duty and we are used to always confronting disasters. However, the number of these disasters has drastically increased lately.”
Abou Moussa said that some civil defense employees were working without pay, while others were getting minimum wage.
Lt. Michel Murr, from Beirut Fire Brigade, said that firefighters had been working at the port for 24 hours.
“Our conditions are lamentable,” he told Arab News. “Our vehicles are overused and have started to break down. Yesterday the water pump broke down yet we continued fighting the fire and called on anyone who had a water tank to bring it over so that we could extinguish the fire.”
The fire brigade had just three vehicles and if they broke down then operations would come to a halt, he said.
“According to the international firefighting system, the vehicles should be replaced every three or four years. In Lebanon we never replace them with brand new ones because the state has no money. We are working with minimal resources and we still rush into the field whenever we hear of a fire breaking out somewhere. Firefighters did not lose hope despite losing some of our colleagues who got killed in action. Yesterday, our aim was to spare Beirut from the fire and pollution resulting from burning tires and oil. Our equipment consists of the bare essentials, in spite of this we work with high professionalism to spare ourselves from human and material losses.”