BEIRUT (AP) — A large block of the giant grain silos at the port of Beirut, shredded by a massive explosion two years ago, collapsed on Thursday as hundreds of people marched through the Lebanese capital to mark the second anniversary of the explosion that left dozens dead.
The north block of the silos, made up of four towers, had been slowly tilting for days before collapsing, causing a huge cloud of dust. The silos had protected the western neighborhoods of Beirut during the August 4, 2020 explosion that killed nearly 220 people, injured more than 6,000 and caused damage worth billions of dollars.
Thursday’s collapse of around a quarter of the structure came an hour before hundreds of people gathered outside the facility to mark the 2nd anniversary of the disaster. Authorities had evacuated parts of the port earlier this week – after a first section of the silos collapsed on Sunday – as a precaution and there were no signs anyone was injured.
The 48-meter-tall, 50-year-old silos had withstood the force of the 2020 explosion that destroyed much of the port. Many in Lebanon, including the families of the victims, have demanded that the silos be kept for future generations as a testament to an explosion they say was caused by widespread corruption and mismanagement in the tiny Mediterranean nation.
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Sunday’s initial collapse was sparked by a week-long blaze, caused by leftover grain left over from the 2020 blast that began to ferment and ignite in the summer heat last month . Firefighters and Lebanese Army soldiers were unable to extinguish it and it smoked, spreading an unpleasant smell.
The environment and health ministries issued instructions in late July to residents living near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces. Experts warned of more collapses in the coming days and said the entire structure of the silos was at risk of collapsing.
After Thursday’s collapse, fire engines and an army helicopter doused the silos with water in an attempt to put out the blaze.
Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-mandated team of experts, said there were eight silos left in the northern block. He added that this part has an inclination of 3.3 degrees and resumes the same trend as before – almost 0.5 degrees “per day, which is huge”.
“The southern block is still not moving,” said Durand, who monitors silos thousands of miles away using data produced by sensors he installed more than a year ago, and told a team of Lebanese developers of a WhatsApp group.
The anniversary came amid calls for an international investigation into the blast, one of the most destructive incidents in Lebanon’s troubled modern history. The national investigation has stalled since December following legal challenges by indicted and accused officials against the investigating judge.
Hundreds of people, including the families of the victims, marched Thursday from three locations in Beirut to the main road outside the port. Some carried white coffins with the names of some of the victims, others carried a fake gallows, demanding punishment for those responsible.
“The pain is still the same,” said a man who had lost his brother.
Two years later, none of the main politicians have apologized to the Lebanese. The government has called for a day of mourning, leading to the closure of many businesses.
Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of the Lebanese investigation, had charged four former senior government officials with intentional homicide and negligence resulting in the death of dozens of people. He also indicted several senior security officials in the case.
But none of them were detained and two of those charged were re-elected to parliament in May.
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“There is no justice under the rule of the militia and the mafia,” read a banner carried during the march – an apparent reference to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has called for Bitar’s removal from office. , describing it as biased.
Many blamed the Lebanese government’s longstanding corruption and mismanagement, saying it paved the way for tragedy, when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, exploded in the port.
“The state does not have the right to abstain from the Lebanese investigation and also prevent an international investigation,” said Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, the largest in Lebanon. during a special Thursday prayer for the victims.
Some of those marching paused briefly outside the French embassy to urge France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, to ask the UN Human Rights Council to send a fact-finding mission to investigate the explosion.
They then gathered outside the port where they called for justice and vowed never to drop the case, before dispersing peacefully.
Official correspondence between political, security and judicial officials revealed that many were aware of the hazardous substances stored at the port, without taking meaningful steps to remove them.
After the explosion, port customs and legal documents revealed that the ammonium nitrate was shipped to Lebanon in 2013 on a worn-out Russian ship and improperly stored in a port warehouse ever since.