New port fire burns in battered Beirut one month after deadly blast
Hussein Malla AP
BEIRUT — Panicked residents fled the area surrounding the Beirut port Thursday after a massive fire broke out at a warehouse storing oil and tires, stoking anxieties in a city still reeling from a deadly explosion ignited by a fire at the same port last month.
The fire raged for over seven hours, sending dense plumes of toxic black smoke billowing over the city and filling the air with the smell of sulfur and burning rubber.
Beirut is still struggling to recover from the trauma and damage inflicted when a fire caused the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on Aug. 4. At least 192 people were killed, more than 6,000 injured, and homes and other property wrecked for miles around.
This fire appears to have erupted under almost identical circumstances, prompting new accusations of incompetence and negligence against the Lebanese authorities. It was ignited by tools used by workers making repairs on a warehouse containing tires and engine oil that was operated by BCC Logistics, a freight forwarding company, according to a company official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The fire that ignited the explosion last month was most likely triggered by sparks produced when welders were sealing a hole in the wall of the warehouse containing the ammonium nitrate, according to investigators’ preliminary findings.
Also involved in this latest blaze are consignments of food aid procured by the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Fabrizio Carboni , the ICRC’s regional director for the Middle East. The fire risks a serious disruption of the ICRC’s aid operations, he said.
[For Beirut’s traumatized survivors, days of waking nightmares and nights of troubled dreams]
Recalling the massive explosion that occurred during the earlier fire, people in the vicinity of the port rushed to evacuate. A video posted on social media showed panicked port workers sprinting from the area as the fire blazed around them. Beirutis nearby piled into cars or walked as fast as they could to get away from the fire, said Dima Abou Abdou, who was serving in a coffee shop and raced outside to her car, joining a throng of honking vehicles and fleeing pedestrians.
“We were already trying to overcome the last explosion and survive,” she said. “Now it’s not even about surviving, it’s just about escaping.”
“This happening twice in a month leaves questions as to whether they can be left in control of a country,” she added, referring to the government.
“We really truly got scared. I tried to think where to hide,” said George Haddad, who works with a nongovernmental organization, Alef. His apartment was among those damaged in the explosion last month.
It was a reminder, Haddad said, that despite promises of reform and the prospect of a new government taking office soon, substantive changes to the country’s dysfunctional system are still remote.
“All these hopes we have, it is not real. We still have the same people in charge and pointing figures at each other,” he said.
Another resident, Moustafa Dakdouk, said he was working at a cafe that had recently reopened after the damage inflicted by last month’s blast was repaired.
Then, as smoke filled the sky Thursday afternoon, it was as if “the world became yellow,” he said. He ran from the cafe in Gemmayzeh, a neighborhood badly hit by the Aug. 4 blast, and urged others to do the same, picking his way through traffic as people fled.
“There’s no way you can imagine the traffic. It wasn’t moving,” Dakdouk said. “And I made sure that I’m in the middle of the road, far from cars, far from glass, because, honestly, I was just waiting for something to explode.”
When he got home, he threw open his windows and doors to try to protect them from the shock wave if there was another explosion. “Just waiting,” he said.
Sly reported from Washington. Sarah Dadouch and Nader Durgham in Beirut and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.
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