A section of Beirut’s massive port grain silos, shredded in the 2020 explosion, collapsed in a huge cloud of dust on Sunday after a weeks-long fire triggered by grains that had fermented and ignited in the summer heat.
The northern block of the silos collapsed after what sounded like an explosion, kicking up thick grey dust that enveloped the iconic structure and the port next to a residential area. It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured.
Assaad Haddad, the general director of the Port Silo, told The Associated Press that “everything is under control” but that the situation has not subsided yet. Minutes later, the dust settled and calm returned.
However, Youssef Mallah, from the Civil Defence department, said that other parts of the northern block of the silos were at risk and that other sections of the giant ruin could collapse.
The 50 year-old, 48-metre-tall giant silos withstood the force of the explosion two years ago, effectively shielding the western part of Beirut from the chemical blast that killed over 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 and badly damaged entire neighbourhoods.
In July, a fire broke out in the northern block of the silos due to the fermenting grains. Firefighters and Lebanese Army soldiers were unable to put it out and it smouldered for weeks, a nasty smell spreading around. The environment and health ministries last week issued instructions to residents living near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces.
The fire and the dramatic sight of the smouldering, partially blackened silo revived the memories and in some cases, the trauma for the survivors of the gigantic explosion that tore through the port two years ago.
People rush indoors after collapse
Many rushed to close windows and return indoors after the collapse Sunday.
Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-commissioned team of experts, told the AP that the northern block of the silo was already been tipping since the day of the 2020 blast, but the latest fire had weakened its frail structure, accelerating a possible collapse.
When the fermenting grains ignited earlier in July, firefighters and Lebanese soldiers tried to put out the fire with water, but withdrew after the moisture made it worse. The Interior Ministry said over a week later that the fire had spread, after reaching some electric cables nearby.
The silos continued smoldering for weeks as the odour of fermented grain seeped into nearby neighbourhoods. Residents who had survived the 2020 explosion said the fire and the smell reminded them of their trauma. The environment and health ministries last week instructed residents living near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces.
The Lebanese Red Cross distributed K-N95 masks to those living nearby, and officials ordered firefighters and port workers to stay away from the immediate area near the silos.
Engineer says collapse was inevitable
Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-commissioned team of experts, told the AP earlier in July that the northern block of the silo had been slowing tilting over time but that the recent fire accelerated the rate and caused irreversible damage to the already weakened structure.
Durand been monitoring the silos from thousands of kilometres away using data produced by sensors he installed over a year ago, and updating a team of Lebanese government and security officials on the developments in a WhatsApp group. In several reports, he warned that the northern block could collapse at any moment.
Last April, the Lebanese government decided to demolish the silos, but suspended the decision following protests from families of the blast’s victims and survivors. They contend that the silos may contain evidence useful for the judicial probe, and that it should stand as a memorial for the tragic incident.
The Lebanese probe has revealed that senior government and security officials knew about the dangerous material stored at the port, though no officials have been convicted thus far. The implicated officials subsequently brought legal challenges against the judge leading the probe, which has left the investigation suspended since December.