Blaze at Beirut port rattles distrustful residents a month after blast

Carmen Geha, an activist and associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said: “It’s a gross crime, gross negligence and gross arrogance. You can’t trust them to manage anything.”
Thursday 10/09/2020
Smoke rises from Beirut’s seaport area, Lebanon September 10. (REUTERS)
Smoke rises from Beirut’s seaport area, Lebanon September 10. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT - A large fire erupted at Beirut port on Thursday, sending a huge column of smoke over the Lebanese capital weeks after a massive blast devastated the port and surrounding residential area.

The fire jangled nerves in a nation grappling with a deep economic crisis and where the population has little trust in the government, especially since the August 4 blast that killed about 190 people and injured over 6,000.

The circumstances of that explosion are still to be elucidated despite an internationally-assisted government probe.

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The blaze began in the shattered duty free zone of the port, prompting some residents to flee the city still traumatised by last month’s explosion which followed a port fire.

“For sure we were scared, it’s only been a month since the explosion that destroyed Beirut. We saw the same thing happening again,” 53-year-old Andre Muarbes said as some districts of the capital were shrouded by a cloud of black smoke.

A military source said early indications suggested the blaze started when cooking oil in the port area caught fire and spread to stores of tyres. At one point, live television footage showed flames licking up near a pile of tires in a smashed warehouse.

Army helicopters dropped water on the fire, as firefighters battled the blaze on the ground.

There were no immediate reports of injuries but the blaze strained nerves already on edge in a nation grappling with a deep economic crisis that has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Majed Hassanein, 49, was taking his wife and two children out of the city by car. “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again,” he said.

His son, he said, was still suffering shock from the blast that ruined a swathe of capital near the port, leaving about 300,000 people without inhabitable homes and shattering windows across the city.

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettaneh, said there was no fear of another explosion as a result of Thursday’s fire and there were no injuries, although he said there were some people suffering from shortness of breath.

The public prosecutor ordered an immediate investigation into the blaze. Many Lebanese are frustrated that they have not been told about any initial findings from an investigation into the port blast, more than a month after it ripped through Beirut.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at warehouses at the seaport in Beirut, September 10. (AP)
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at warehouses at the seaport in Beirut, September 10. (AP)

Carmen Geha, an activist and associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said the fire was further proof of mismanagement by a ruling elite, who have dragged the nation into crisis after years of corruption and poor governance.

“It’s a gross crime, gross negligence and gross arrogance,” she said. “You can’t trust them to manage anything.”

Firefighters were shown in television footage dousing the port fire surrounded by mangled remains of warehouses destroyed in last month’s explosion, which was caused by a store of ammonium nitrate that had been kept in poor condition at the port for years.