New Fire Erupts in Beirut Port, Weeks After Devastating Blast

BEIRUT — A large fire erupted in Beirut’s port on Thursday, sending up orange flames and a huge plume of black smoke that terrified residents still recovering from the horrific port explosion that devastated entire neighborhoods last month.

The fire appeared to have started in a warehouse belonging to a private company that imported cooking oil; it then spread to a stock of rubber tires, the port’s interim general manager, Bassem El-Kaissi, said in a telephone interview.

“That is why you see the big black clouds,” Mr. El-Kaissi said, adding that it was too early to speculate about how the fire had begun.

The fire broke out in a part of the port near a major highway known as the free zone, where companies store goods intended for import that have not yet cleared customs. The area, like much of the port, was heavily damaged in last month’s blast, which happened after a fire started in a storage hangar for hazardous materials.

The fire sent up giant orange flames and thick smoke that were visible for miles and spread panic inside the port and in neighborhoods ravaged by last month’s blast. Port workers scrambled to flee their offices and residents fled their homes or hid in hallways, fearing that the fire could cause a new explosion.

“I’m telling myself that nothing’s going to happen and it’s probably not a big deal, but you can’t fight the anxiety of opening all the windows, sitting inside a corridor or being jumpy all the time and having people call you, telling you to leave the area,” said Feras Abdallah, 27, an architect whose car and apartment were destroyed by the explosion.

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Last month’s blast, the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history, happened when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used in explosives, combusted after a fire broke out in the hangar where it was stored. The compound had been improperly kept in Beirut’s port for years.

A New York Times investigation found that an entrenched culture of corruption at the port had left officials who worked there more focused on illicit gains than on ensuring basic public safety.

The explosion leveled much of the port and sent a powerful shock wave through residential neighborhoods, shattering windows and doors. More than 190 people were killed and 6,000 wounded.

The extent of the fire on Thursday was not immediately clear, but Mr. El-Kaissi said that firefighters from Beirut and other municipalities were working to put it out, in addition to the Lebanese Army, which was dropping water on the flames from helicopters. He played down the possibility that it could cause a new explosion.

“Actually, it is not related to any explosion or anything of that sort,” he said.

The Lebanese Army also said in a statement that the fire had begun at a warehouse in the free zone where oil and tires were stored. Efforts to clear the area from the earlier blast were continuing when the fire erupted.

Lebanon was already confronting a range of crises — a collapsing currency, a persistent protest movement and rampant government corruption. The devastation that the explosion caused, along with indications that it was because of negligence from a number of government agencies, has left many Lebanese wondering how their country will recover.

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Kareem Chehayeb and Megan Specia contributed reporting.


Source NY Times

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