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Port silos in Beirut burn again on the anniversary of the deadly explosion

Port silos in Beirut burn again on the anniversary of the deadly explosion
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Two years after the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut, a grain elevator is on fire.
Two years after the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut, a grain elevator is on fire. (Manu Ferneini for the Washington Post)

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BEIRUT – The port of Beirut burned in a nationwide day of mourning. The calm of chirping birds and lapping water was broken Thursday by the regular crackling of flames that attacked the silos on Lebanon’s waterfront.

It was exactly two years to the day since a fire in a dockside hangar triggered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, an explosion that killed 200 people and leveled much of the capital. The current fire is causing anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and residents of the port, who are being reminded of one of the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others marched to a lookout to mark the anniversary and called again for justice and accountability as parts of the silos began to collapse.

Remnants of silos at Beirut’s seaport collapsed on April 11, on the second anniversary of the deadly blast that destroyed much of the city. (Video: Reuters)

Grains stored in the silos were baked, fermented and roasted under the scorching sun and intense humidity. Three weeks ago, the oils from the grains started a fire that has been growing ever since, licking the gutted sides of some of the 157-foot buildings.

Four out of 16 silos in the north block of the port began to collapse on Sunday. Flames continued to weaken structures on Thursday. Four other silos pitched sideways and then fell, kicking up a cloud of sand-colored dust a few hundred feet from the protesters.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who has volunteered to work with rescue workers to monitor the structure, said the south block is structurally sound. Those silos were built later, are in better condition, have stronger foundations, and were mostly empty at the time of the 2020 explosion, he said. There is no fire there.

“The measurements from both laser scanning and inclinometers show that it’s stable,” he said.

In April, fearing the grain elevators would collapse, the government announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some victims’ families have opposed the move, calling for its preservation as a memorial instead.

Lebanon mourns with sadness and anger the victims of the Beirut explosion

Their protest is symbolic of an outcry over a dysfunctional justice system: activists, MPs and others are demanding that the silos be left alone pending an independent investigation into the causes of the blast.

A judicial inquiry that began in 2020 has slowly ground to a halt: The first judge leading the investigation charged four officers with negligence for ignoring 2,750 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate for six years and the material during that time by the water in a camp alongside firecrackers and paint thinners on the outskirts of a crowded city.

The judge was dismissed from the case after two of the former ministers he is impeaching lodged a complaint alleging he had demonstrated a lack of neutrality in selecting prominent figures to impeach in order to placate an angry public.

The judge who succeeded him, Judge Tarek Bitar, met with resistance from officials he tried to question, arguing that they had immunity or that he lacked authority. They flooded the courts with complaints calling for his removal. As a result, his work has been suspended: the courts tasked with deciding the complaints are on hold as judges retire.

“Our demands are clear,” said Najat Saliba, atmospheric chemist and newly elected MP. “And the top priority is the independence of the judiciary so that people at least have the feeling that the victims and their souls have not been lost.”

Saliba won a seat in Parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates dubbed “the forces of change”. They have benefited from calls for new votes in a legislature that for decades has been ruled mostly by aging males from few families.

Saliba said the silos must be witnesses to the disaster, the stables should not be touched until justice is achieved.

“The government says there is an economic loss over the Lost Basin area,” she told the Washington Post. But the priority, she said, is getting justice for families.

“We tell [ministers]”No matter what, the silos have to remain straight and upright,” she said. “They remain so that they are a testament to our collective memory.”

Thousands gathered on a bridge over the harbor on Thursday. At 6:07 p.m., the time of the explosion, they observed a moment of silence. Then, as helicopters in the background dumped water containers over the smoldering remains of the recently collapsed silos, the mother of one victim addressed the crowd.

“We want to know the truth. It is our right that those responsible for this horrific crime be held accountable!” Mireille Khoury shouted into a microphone. Her son Elias, 15, was killed in the blast.

“It was the right of my son and all victims to live and to be safe,” she said, her voice breaking at the word “safe.”

Six months after the massive explosion in Beirut, the official investigation was suspended

Men and women who stood under a large Lebanese flag marked with red spots to represent the blood of the lost wept silently.

A woman led the gathering in an oath.

“I swear by her pure blood, by the tears of mothers and siblings and fathers and children and elders,” she read in a statement, “that we will not despair, we will not submit, we will not submit, we.” we won’t withdraw, we won’t surrender, we won’t underestimate. We are here and here we will remain until the end of time.”

With each promise, listeners repeated the words “I swear” with their arms raised.

Earlier Thursday, some family members visited the port to pay their respects to the dead. Port security officials seemed unfazed by the day’s burden – some have expressed anger at the attention the silos and port are still receiving. But others felt differently.

A soldier stood guard amid mountains of dented metal crates, thick, tangled rope, and wrecked cars, rusted aerosol cans, and curtain rods still in their packaging. Three ships that were in port at the time of the explosion are still lying there, lying on their sides. A ship thrown clear out of the water sits rusting on concrete.

The soldier, asked if the mountains of debris towering over him were all from the blast, nodded. “And it will stay,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Look at that, it’s a heap of rubbish. Who’s going to remove it?” When asked if he knew of any plans to clear the site, he shook his head. “Who can afford it?”

The soldier lost a friend in the explosion, a comrade stationed near the silos. “When we found his vehicle, it was this big,” he said, holding his hands about 20 inches apart.

He had no opinion on whether the southern block should be preserved as a memorial or demolished.

He said it didn’t feel weird working so close to a place where he lost a friend.

“You get used to it. It’s life,” he said. “Those who can’t are the families. For example, I’ve known him for a year. They lost their son.”

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