Smoke and mirrors: Criminal incompetence over Beirut silos fire leaves Lebanon shattered
They say every dusk brings the promise of a new dawn. But over the past two weeks, the scene of the sun setting over the port of Beirut has hardly been promising as flames have raged around the port’s grain silos, turning a usually beautiful sight into one of unique horror.
Standing alone on the capital's skyline, four out of 16 silos in the northern block of the Beirut port grain storage silos reportedly collapsed on Sunday evening, sending huge grey dust into the air.
According to Yehya Temsah, a structural engineer and a professor at the Beirut Arab University, the collapse of the northern block of the silos is "expected" as the effect of the weekslong fire decreases the structural capacity of the silos, with a high possibility that more silos in the northern part could collapse without affecting the southern part of the silos.
The Fire Brigade of the Governorate of Beirut declined the request for comments. The Lebanese Red Cross reportedly distributed K-N95 masks to residents nearby. Firefighters and port workers were ordered to stay away from the immediate area near the silos.
"The silos should stay there until justice is done and until I know what happened in the explosion until I know why our families were killed"
The grain silos had already been reduced to rubble as a result of the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, when at least 200 people were killed near the silos.
The fermentation of wheat and grains in the summer sun is what has caused this latest fire in the silos’ north block according to the outgoing Economy Minister Amin Salam.
The opposition MP Melhem Khalaf announced on Saturday, 16 July that an “agreement” had been made to extinguish the blaze and the army helicopter was spotted extinguishing the fire, but the attempt was inefficient.
Meanwhile, the tardy response of the authorities in dealing with the crisis has been considered by some as yet ‘another crime’ committed by Lebanon’s ruling elite, with many arguing that their reluctance to act is simply fuelling justification for demolishing the silos.
The Silent Witness
Following the Lebanese cabinet’s decision to approve the demolition of the port’s silos in April on the grounds that they may collapse in the coming months, the reaction from the public has been strong.
“The fire at the silos has been the fire burning in our hearts every night for two years since the explosion happened,” said Nohad Abdo, who lost her nephew Jack Baramakian in the blast.
She and the families of other victims gathered under the banner of a campaign known as 'The Silent Witness' in July to protest against the silos being demolished.
“The silos should stay there until justice is done and until I know what happened in the explosion until I know why our families were killed,” Nohad said. “There is no government… there are still parts of the bodies of the victims there [in the silos].”
Rima Zahed, in full black, holding a photo of her brother Amin Zahed who also lost his life in the blast, told The New Arab that “after we kicked off the campaign [the Silent Witness], the fire started the next day.”
She added: “The explosion happened two years ago, two summers have passed and there was no fire.”
She gathered on Wednesday night with families of other victims and believes that the fire in the silos was set intentionally.
According to Nahida Khalil, an architect and member of Naqaba Tantafid (or The Syndicate Revolts – a coalition which runs in Order of Engineers and Architects elections), the silos should be “kept as a cultural heritage”.
Nahida who is also a member of the International Council of Monuments and Sites added that “the government should ask help from other nations like Cyprus or the UN to publish the experts’ opinion” on this matter.
The experts’ view
According to Yehya Temsah, part of the foundation system of the silos was damaged in the blast two years ago.
"Before the fires, the north groups of silos had 2 millimetres (mm) average lateral displacement per day. After the fires lasted for ten days, the rate increased to 2mm per hour, and then to 6 to 8mm per hour," which he believes led to the collapse of the silos on Sunday.
He explained that the movements were observed from several sensors installed on the silos by engineer Emmanuel Durand, who volunteered for a government-commissioned team of experts.
Referring to a seminar by the Order of Engineers and Architects on 5 April, Salmen Dbaissy, an engineer and member of the Council of Delegates from the association, told The New Arab that more than a team of structural engineers have studied the silos’ building.
"We find that they won’t collapse by themselves. The northern part is damaged but it won’t collapse by itself. The southern part is okay. In fact, there are two buildings connected with each other. Now what we fear is that nobody will interfere with the fire until the northern part – which already has a lot of damage – will collapse by itself and this will become a reason to demolish the whole part.”
Mona Fawaz, a professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut and the cofounder of the Beirut Urban Lab, and Soha Mneimneh, a research coordinator at the same lab stated in a recent article that "demolishing the silos would essentially amount to a group of warlords-turned-statesmen hammering the final nail into the coffin of a stalled investigation that they have been determined to shut down from the first moment".
"The current regime and ruling class have been justifying what they've been doing ever since they decided to demolish the silos... I don’t want to accuse anyone but we don’t believe what happened [the fire] was just pure coincidence"
Soha Mneimneh, who joined the protest near the port last Wednesday evening told The New Arab, "After the blast, the remaining 14 silos had damage to the lower side and the upper side, but not the middle side. Once the damage [caused by the fire] reaches the middle section, the collapse [of the silos] will happen.”
Soha believes that there is no justification for the delay by the authorities in extinguishing the fire. “The fire is damaging the middle section. They [the silos] are going to collapse anytime soon.”
In an interview with The New Arab on 20 July, Ali Najam, Public Relations Officer of the Fire Brigade of the Governorate of Beirut, said that the fire does not reach “more than one metre”. He explained that the fire burns from the top of the wheat piles and goes down to the bottom.
Searching for solutions or procrastination?
On Saturday, 16 July, an army firefighting helicopter was spotted dousing the flames Saturday morning.
But the same question remains on many people’s lips – why has the announcement come so late? At the same time, some residents in districts such as Karantina and Mar Mikhael claim that they have been unable to even open their windows over the past week due to the smoke from the fire.
Completing a tour of the site on Thursday, 14th July, Economy Minister Amin Salam told local news Al Jadeed that using helicopters to extinguish the fire could “spread the fire inside the silos. We’re simply searching for solutions that won’t aggravate the consequences."
L’Orient Today wrote that Caretaker Public Works Minister Ali Hamieh had ordered rescue teams not to approach the silos due to safety considerations.
Ali Najam told The New Arab that the army helicopter stopped the fire for “about 24 hours” and “can’t reach some places. Some places you have to fight the fire face to face”.
He said that the fire is caused by the chemical process of the wheat and corn remaining in the silos, under the natural condition of heat, wind, and sunlight.
The brigade is studying the situation and making a plan, “first the safety of firefighters and then the extinguish plan”. The firefighters have to remain a safe distance from the fire, “about 100 metres far”, the officer said.
The possible plan, according to him, is two options: using a ladder to approach from the top of the silos, or coming from the sea.
“If you have a chair that is burning, you can leave it to burn to finish or extinguish the fire. We can’t leave it to burn, there is too much wheat and corns,” the officer said, adding, 'We want to extinguish the fire [of the silos] completely."
Asked how to prevent the fires from happening again in the summer, he suggested that authorities should remove their wheat and corn.
"It’s going to be a sign that the ruling class is more powerful than we thought"
“The current regime and ruling class have been justifying what they've been doing ever since they decided to demolish the silos,” said Soha Mneimneh, “I don’t want to accuse anyone but we don’t believe what happened [the fire] was just pure coincidence.”
Professor Yehia Temsah, an expert on structural engineering and the Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Beirut Arab University said that “no serious measures [from the authority] were taken into consideration".
He added, "The fire is affecting the weakest side of the remaining silos and the capacity of the silos to still stand. If the fire continues, it will contribute to the weakening of the structure of remaining silos.”
Dr Naji Kodeih, an international environmental health expert, explained that it was very probable that the fire was spontaneous. "It was the result of the chemical degradation of organic materials in anaerobic conditions. We can see the same process in a landfill. Such a fire is very difficult to manage.”
According to him, SO2 emissions from the fire could lead to respiratory pathology. As the silos are very near the sea, and during long periods, the fire could hypothetically react with chlorine forming toxic compounds such as dioxins. Even in very small quantities, the health impact of these kinds of emissions is very high and very dangerous.
He added that the danger of the particles from collapse varies according to their size.
“The action [of extinguishing the fire] would not eliminate the decision of demolishing the silos or at least the interest of demolishing it,” said Salmen Daisy.
The engineer, who is also an activist in preserving the silos, believes that sending the helicopter on Saturday came as a response to the pressure from the victim's families and later the Thawra MPs. “It is not enough, especially with no explanations as to why it didn’t happen before,” he said, presenting the opinions of his association.
Opposition groups gained 13 seats in the newly-elected parliament in Lebanon in May.
People in the country have high hopes for the new MPs who could bring changes to save the country from a multifaceted financial and economic crisis.
“If the fire continues, it’s going to be more traumatic for everyone in this city. It’s going to be a sign that the ruling class is more powerful than we thought,” said the young urban planner Soha.
At the end of the interview with Najam, the reporter asked a few questions.
Will the cause of the fire be investigated?
“Yes, but it’s not our job. Our job is to extinguish the fire,” he said, “ministries and judges will investigate.”
Would you like to see the silos remain as a Lebanese citizen, not as a soldier or firefighter?
“I don’t know. You see them [silos], you remember your friends. I can’t decide. We lost 10 of our firefighters in the blast. Let’s wait for the investigation from the judge [about the blast]... everyone in Lebanon needs to know.”
When will the extinguishing plan be fixed?
Yiyao Yang is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beirut. She writes on politics, contemporary art, and the climate in Lebanon and the region.
Follow her on Twitter: @Yiyao79194046