Beirut port blast survivors relive trauma as silos burn

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BEIRUT — Rita Qadan’s heart skips a beat every time she recounts how she survived the devastating Beirut port explosion two years ago. And each time she sees the immense silos of the port, she recalls her trauma.

The port’s grain silos destroyed in the blast – a massive, charred ruin jutting into the sky – have been burning for weeks after remnants of the grains that withstood the 2020 blast began to ferment and rot. ignite in the summer heat. The Lebanese government said last week that the blaze spread after flames reached nearby power cables. Experts warn that the structure could collapse at any moment.

On that fateful August 4, 2020, hundreds of tons of explosive ammonium nitrate, improperly stored in the port for years, exploded, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000. Entire parts of the city around the port were destroyed in the explosion, and the tragedy became a searing trauma for the psyche of the entire Lebanese population.

Today, Qadan still works as a concierge in a building in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district, where she has lived for decades, her small apartment tucked away in the corner of the ground floor.

The area along Beirut’s waterfront has a direct view of the port and the smoking silos. The smoke brings back horrible memories, Qadan said as he watered his plants.

The stench seeping into her modest two-room apartment is dizzying, she says. “I’m just wearing my mask and staying inside,” Qadan told The Associated Press, his voice shaking. “I’m really afraid they’ll fall.”

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-mandated team of experts, says the collapse of the northern block in the port is inevitable and only a matter of time.

In Geneva, he monitored tipping silos thousands of miles away using data produced by sensors he installed more than a year ago, and briefed a team of Lebanese government officials and the security of the developments of a WhatsApp group.

“Two weeks ago the silos were tilting at 2 millimeters per day, and last week it accelerated to 2.5 millimeters per hour, and it is rapidly accelerating as the fire continues. and causes more structural damage,” Durand told the AP. “It’s now … a stable 6 millimeters per hour.”

Even before the fire, the north block was out of breath. “The fire is finishing him off,” he said.

Durand first visited Beirut as a volunteer two weeks after the 2020 explosion, assessing damaged buildings with engineering students. He had no idea that the port silos would later take up so much of his free time.

“I’m very connected with this particular site and with the country,” he said. “It’s all been a moving experience, but as long as no one gets killed, it’ll be fine.”

From work, Mohammad Daife can also see the silos of the port of Beirut. Daife, whose family business provides customs assistance to shipping customers, said he was in shock for three months after the explosion.

He closes his windows and keeps the air conditioner running to avoid the stench. “We are very disturbed…something could happen to our employees and our families,” Daife said. “I don’t know what the government is going to do, but I hope they make a decision so that this can end.”

Johnny Assaf can also see the silos of his small real estate agency. During the explosion, shards of glass from the windows pierced his back – one piece has still not been removed.

“Our fear is that it will tip over, because we don’t know what could happen to us if it did,” he said.

Lebanon’s health and environment ministries on Monday urged residents of the region to close their windows and wear face masks, offering instructions on how to clean dust from their cars and homes in the event of a fall of the silos. But the locals are still scared.

“My friends are leaving the area,” Assaf said. “But there are people who have nowhere to go.”

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