On anniversary of deadly blast, Lebanon’s port is again ablaze

Photo for The Washington Post by Manu Ferneini
A grain silo burns at the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2022, two years after the explosion that destroyed the port on Aug. 4, 2020.

BEIRUT – On a nationwide day of mourning, Beirut’s port burned. The calm of chirping birds and lapping waters on Thursday was broken by the periodic snap of the flames attacking the silos on Lebanon’s waterfront.

It was two years to the day after a fire in a hangar at the port triggered one of history’s largest nonnuclear explosions, a blast that killed 200 people and leveled vast swaths of the capital. The current fire is triggering anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and those who live near the port, recalling one of the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others were marching to an overlook to mark the anniversary and again demand justice and accountability when parts of the silos began to fall.

Grains stored in the silos had been baking under a broiling sun and intense humidity, fermenting and toasting. Three weeks ago, the oils from the grains sparked a fire, which has been growing and licking the gutted sides of some of the 157-foot-tall structures ever since.

On Sunday, four of 16 silos in the port’s northern bloc began collapsing. On Thursday, the flames continued to weaken the structures. Four more silos leaned to the side and then fell, throwing up a cloud of sand-colored dust a few hundred feet away from the marchers.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who has volunteered to work alongside rescuers to monitor the structure, said the southern bloc 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 blast, he said. There is no fire burning there.

“The measurements by both laser scanning and inclinometers show that it is stable,” he said.

In April, the government, fearing the grain silos would all eventually collapse, announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some families of victims have argued against the move, calling instead for their preservation as a memorial site.

Their protest is symbolic of the outcry over a disrupted pursuit of justice: Activists, members of parliament and others are demanding the silos be left alone until an independent investigation of the causes of the blast is conducted.

A judicial probe that began in 2020 has come to a slow halt: The first judge leading the investigation charged four officials with negligence for ignoring 2,750 tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate for six years, during which time the material was stored on the waterfront in a warehouse alongside fireworks and paint thinners, on the edge of a crowded city.

The judge was dismissed from the case after two of the former ministers he charged filed a complaint, alleging that he had demonstrated a lack of neutrality in choosing prominent figures to charge to appease an angry public.

The judge that followed him, Judge Tarek Bitar, faced resistance from officials whom he tried to question, who argued they have immunity or that he lacks authority. They flooded the courts with complaints seeking his removal. His work has been suspended as a result: The courts that are set to rule on the complaints are on hiatus amid the retirement of judges.

“Our demands are clear,” said Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist and newly elected member of parliament. “And the top demand is the independence of the judiciary so that people at least feel that the victims and their souls didn’t go to waste.”

Saliba won a seat in parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates dubbed “the forces of change.” They have capitalized on a demand for new voices in a legislature ruled for decades largely by aging men from a few families.

Saliba said that the silos must stand as witnesses to the disaster and that the stable ones should not be touched until justice is achieved.

“The government is saying there is an economic loss over the lost basin area,” she told The Washington Post. But the priority, she said, is delivering justice to the families.

“We are telling [ministers], no matter what happens, the silos will have to remain straight and up,” she said. “They remain so that they are a testimony of our collective memory.”

Thousands gathered Thursday on a bridge overlooking the port. At 6:07 p.m., the time of the explosion, they observed a moment of silence. Then, as helicopters in the background tipped containers of water over the smoldering remains of the newly fallen silos, the mother of a victim addressed the crowd.

“We want to know the truth. It’s our right to know those who are responsible for this horrendous crime are held accountable!” Mireille Khoury yelled into a microphone. Her son Elias, 15, was killed in the blast.

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

Men and women, standing underneath a large Lebanese flag marked with red splotches to represent the blood of those lost, wept silently.

A woman led the gathering in an oath.

“I swear by their pure blood, by the tears of mothers and siblings and fathers and children and elders,” she read from a statement, “that we will not despair, we will not acquiesce, we will not comply, we will not retreat, we will not indulge, we will not underestimate. We are here, and here we will stay until the end of time.”

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

Earlier Thursday, some family members visited the port to pay their respects to the dead. Port security officers seemed unruffled by the weight of the day – some expressed annoyance at the attention the silos and port are still receiving. But others felt differently.

One soldier stood guard amid mounds of dented metal crates, thick tangled rope and wrecked cars, rusted aerosol cans and curtain rods still in their packaging. Three ships that had been in the port when the blast occurred are still there, lying on their sides. One vessel, thrown clear out of the water, sits rusting on concrete.

The soldier, asked whether the mountains of wreckage towering over him was all from the explosion, nodded. “And it will stay,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Look at it. It’s a mountain of garbage. Who’s going to remove it?” Asked whether he knew of plans to clear the site, he shook his head. “Who can afford it?”

The soldier lost a friend in the blast, a comrade who was stationed close to 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 kept as a memorial or demolished.

He said it didn’t feel weird to work 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 knew him for one year. They lost their son.”