DISASTER

The Fire at Beirut Port... Additional Evidence of the State's Negligence

The authorities finally resigned themselves to working on public safety issue.

The Fire at Beirut Port... Additional Evidence of the State's Negligence

Firefighters fought for hours the fire in a hangar at the port's free zone on Thursday. Photo Nabil Ismail

What can we say about authorities which, more than a month after the August 4 terrible trage-dy at the Port of Beirut, have not thought of securing a site that is obviously highly dangerous because it seems to be full of chemical, toxic, flammable or explosive products of all kinds, with no control whatsoever? What can we say about the official and ultimately criminal carelessness that could have been the cause of a second deadly catastrophe on Thursday, when fire started in the port, for the second time since the August 4 tragedy – itself caused by a fire – in a hangar containing various flammable products, including alcohol and sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) which, in contact with metal and steel, can cause a fire or even an explosion?

It is not the always late official signals that will reassure thousands of people who today fear for their lives in a country where death traps are countless. The reaction of the president, who con-vened the Supreme Defense Council at an evening meeting to discuss shortcomings at the air-port and the presence at the port of products posing a threat to public safety, came too late. Nearly 200 people died, thousands were injured, disabled or left homeless, and entire neigh-borhoods were devastated. All this was because the reports on the threat to public security posed by the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the hangar no. 12 were treated by the leaders who received them as a routine matter that did not go beyond the ex-change of correspondence.

Even worse, after the tragedy, officials did not address the issue of port security, even though the chairman of the parliamentary committee on transport and public works, MP Nazih Najm, last week alerted to the presence of 49 containers at the port containing dangerous products. Thursday's incident, which started shortly after noon, was caused by a welding operation on the roof of one of the hangars of the free zone, rented by BCC Logistics. Therefore, it was an opera-tion similar to that which may have caused the explosion on August 4 of several tons of ammo-nium nitrate in hangar no. 12...The investigation carried out by Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, at the request of outgoing Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm, and led by the military police should make it possible to identify the exact causes of the disaster, which triggered great panic in the city, particularly in the surrounding neighborhoods where people have not yet had time to heal their wounds or to forget, above all, the horror of that disastrous day of August 4.

"I Cannot Stop Shaking"

Several families immediately evacuated their apartments to get out of the capital. "I did not think for a second before throwing a few things in a big bag and running down the stairs to go to my sister's home in Jbeil," said Nadine, a mother of a 10-year-old girl, in a phone interview. "I was afraid to take the elevator. I felt like everything was going to explode again. What nightmare are we living in? Why are they doing this to us? I cannot take it anymore," she shouted afterwards, on the verge of tears. She was also at home when doors and windows were blown out on August 4 in her apartment in Ashrafieh.

Once she was at the wheel of her car, she called her husband to ask him to join them in Jbeil. "I do not intend to go home for the next few days. I cannot take it anymore," she said again. "Are we sure it is only tires that are burning? I cannot stop shaking," said Nada, who could not stop worrying about the huge column of black smoke that soon covered all of Beirut. It was a toxic smoke column that forced those who had to stay in Beirut to hide inside their homes.

At the port, the workers quickly and naturally gave in to panic. On the videos relayed on social networks, they were seen running for their lives as soon as the fire started to take on terrifying proportions. "We were working and suddenly there was shouting, telling us to get out," Haitham, one of the warehouse employees, told AFP. "There was welding work going on and then the flames came out; we do not know what happened," he added.

"Too Many Coincidences"

Many do not believe in the burning tires hypothesis. Three fires in a month at the Beirut Port is a bit too much of a coincidence, we hear everywhere. Reflecting extreme distrust of the au-thorities, some believe that Thursday's fire at the free zone hangar and last week's fire in a mound of garbage were caused and intended to hide evidence related to the August 4 incident, which is still under investigation.

Contacted by L'Orient-Le Jour, MP Najm rejected this hypothesis and assured that the hangar that caught fire on Thursday had been damaged by the double explosion of August 4. The own-ers of the products stored there had initiated repair work. Some said the workers were welding steel, others said they were using an angle grinder which produced sparks that caused the dis-aster. According to Najm, the hangar contained food, frying oils, vodka, tires, disinfectants, black tea, machinery, cosmetics and perfumes, medical equipment for St. George's Hospital in Ajaltoun and sodium hydroxide (or caustic soda). The food was destined for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN International Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). "Shock-ing images of the Beirut Port. The burning hangar contained thousands of food units and half a million liters of oil. The extent of the damage has yet to be determined .Our humanitarian op-eration risks being seriously compromised," said Fabrizio Carboni, director of the ICRC in the Near and Middle East.

An adjacent hangar also contained imported tires, according to Najm, who said he obtained the inventory from the customs office when he headed to the port to follow up the rescue opera-tions, in the presence of Beirut's governor, Marwan Abboud, outgoing Defense Minister Zeina Akar, and acting port director Bassem al-Kaissi who announced that starting Friday, he will pro-hibit the storage of flammable materials without authorization. Najm reiterated that 49 con-tainers contain dangerous products and that he alerted the army command, which promised to deal with the matter without delay but said that the operation would take time.

During its meeting, the Supreme Defense Council asked the "involved agencies and the port au-thority to control and inspect the contents of these 49 hangars and other containers currently in the port." Those whose content is not claimed by their owners should be destroyed.

At the opening of the meeting, President Michel Aoun indicated that "the fire could be an act of sabotage or the result of a technical error" and deemed "unacceptable that such errors be re-peated." He proposed the implementation of new labor regulations at the port, including the creation of a port security service.

In any case, the fire at the port led to a cascade of political reactions, particularly among oppo-sition figures. Several political figures denounced in very violent terms the "negligence" and "decay" of the state.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 11th of September)



What can we say about authorities which, more than a month after the August 4 terrible trage-dy at the Port of Beirut, have not thought of securing a site that is obviously highly dangerous because it seems to be full of chemical, toxic, flammable or explosive products of all kinds, with no control whatsoever? What can we say about the official and ultimately criminal carelessness that could...

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