Friday, 18 Sep 2020

Panic amid towering inferno at Beirut's port

Huge fire at site of last month’s devastating explosion met with fear, anger and questions about incompetence.

Beirut, Lebanon – A towering inferno at Beirut’s port has caused widespread panic in the Lebanese capital, just two days after another fire was put out at the site of a massive explosion that killed nearly 200 people last month.

The Lebanese army said on Thursday the blaze erupted at a warehouse storing oils and tyres in the port’s Duty Free area.

A witness told Al Jazeera she saw people running in the opposite direction of the fire, which sent a large plume of smoke into the sky. She also saw cars reversing in the Mar Mikhail neighbourhood, which was devastated by the August 4 explosion that wounded more than 6,500 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Several workers told local media that there had been clearance efforts under way inside the warehouse to remove debris from last month’s explosion, at which point the fire caught.

As was the case with the August disaster, firefighters arrived on the scene without being informed of exactly what was on fire -though “we didn’t go in blind,” Lieutenant Michel Murr, who oversees firefighting efforts in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

Ten firefighters were killed on August 4 after being sent to extinguish the fire caused by the explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port.

Murr said he could not entirely rule out the presence of explosive material in the area, but said it was unlikely.

“We’re being as careful as we can be given the situation,” Murr added, noting that there were no injuries resulting from the fire.

He said they were working to “contain” the fire but had not yet been able to control it as of 2:30pm (11:30 GMT). Army helicopters were brought in to assist in the efforts.

A smaller fire had caught at Beirut’s port on Tuesday, leading many to panic, though it was extinguished soon afterwards. Just a few days before that, the army said it had found 4.35 tons of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port. It says it has since destroyed the explosive material.

An army source told Al Jazeera that security forces were in the process of undertaking a complete survey of the entire port area, but could not say how much had been completed and when the survey would be done.

“The amount of work and the area involved is massive,” he said.

On social media, Lebanese voiced a mixture of rage, fear and fatigue at the latest emergency to grip their capital.

“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?” Lebanese writer Lina Mounzer said in a Twitter post. “The sky is black black above and my lungs hurt. (So does my heart).”

Others raised questions about possible evidence-tampering amid an ongoing investigation into the explosion.

“Beirut’s port is an official crime scene … having back to back fires in it within a few days is not an innocent accident … it cannot be,” said Karim Namour, a local activist lawyer. “Another investigation should be undertaken to know why is there a fire? And who is responsible?”

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