Los Angeles Times

As feared, Beirut silos topple

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BEIRUT — A section of Beirut’s massive port grain silos, shredded in a 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 toppled after what sounded like an explosion, kicking up thick gray dust that enveloped the structure and the port next to a residentia­l area. It was not immediatel­y clear whether anyone was injured.

Assaad Haddad, general director of the port silos, said “everything is under control.” However, Youssef Mallah of the civil defense department said that other parts of the silos’ northern block were at risk and that other sections of the giant ruin could collapse.

The 50-year-old, 157-foottall silos had withstood the force of the explosion two years ago, in effect shielding the western part of Beirut from the blast that killed more than 200 people, injured more than 6,000 others and badly damaged entire neighborho­ods.

In July, a fire broke out in the northern block of the silos because of the fermenting grains. Firefighte­rs and Lebanese army soldiers were unable to put it out and it smoldered for weeks, releasing an unpleasant odor. The Environmen­t and Health ministries issued instructio­ns to residents living near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces.

The fire and the sight of the smoldering, partially blackened silos revived the memories and, in some cases, the trauma for the survivors of the gigantic explosion that tore through the port on Aug. 4, 2020.

Many rushed to close windows and return indoors after the collapse Sunday.

Rima Zahed, whose brother died in the 2020 blast and who has been part of a survivors’ group lobbying for the preservati­on of the silos as a testament to the port explosion, blamed the government for not taking action to put out the weeks-long fire.

“We were talking about this three weeks ago, but they chose to do nothing and leave it on fire,” she said. “This shows the state’s failure.”

When the fermenting grains ignited earlier in July, Lebanese firefighte­rs and soldiers tried to put out the fire, but officials and experts told them to stop, fearing the additional moisture from the water would worsen the situation. The Interior Ministry said more than a week later that the fire had spread after reaching electric cables nearby.

The silos continued smoldering for weeks as the stench of the fermented grains seeped into neighborho­ods. Residents who had survived the 2020 explosion said the fire and the smell reminded them of their trauma.

The Lebanese Red Cross distribute­d masks to those living nearby, and officials ordered firefighte­rs and port workers to stay away from the area near the silos.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteere­d for the government-commission­ed team of experts, said last month that the northern block of the silos had been slowly tilting but that the fire accelerate­d the rate and caused irreversib­le damage to the already weakened structure.

Durand had been monitoring the silos from thousands of miles away using data produced by sensors he installed more than a year ago. In reports to Lebanese officials, he warned that the northern block could collapse at any moment.

In 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 a judicial investigat­ion, and that the structures should stand as a memorial.

The Lebanese investigat­ion has revealed that senior government and security officials knew about the dangerous material stored at the port. No officials have been convicted, but those implicated brought legal challenges against the judge, leaving the investigat­ion suspended since December.

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