Beirut explosions: Port hanger ‘known to be dangerous’ with fireworks stored alongside stockpile, workers confirm

‘It’s a tragedy to throw the firefighters into the blaze there, to their deaths,’ says port worker

Bel Trew
Beirut
,Samira El-Azar
Sunday 09 August 2020 14:28
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View from the ocean of Beirut's devastated port after warehouse explosion

The stockpile of ammonium nitrate that likely caused the Beirut blast was being stored alongside fireworks in a hanger widely known to be dangerous, port workers have said, expressing fury at the fire fighters being “sent to their death”.

A current port worker, whose asked to remain anonymous, revealed to The Independent that it was “well known” in the port that Hangar 12 housed a potentially deadly mix of explosives, and may at one point have contained weapons.

The source was not working at the time but says he was close to the port when the explosion ripped through Beirut, killing over 150 people including his friends and colleagues.

He said he felt the authorities had sent fire fighters to their deaths as although low-level employees like himself were not permitted to know exactly what was inside, and didn’t realise the full extent of the danger, he claims the volatility of Hanger 12 was well known.

“Everyone knew it was dangerous, they knew there were confiscated explosives there, and possibly weapons but we didn’t know exactly what,” he said, distraught.

“It’s a tragedy to throw the firefighters into the blaze there, to their deaths,” he said.

Fire fighters who work at the port and were off duty on Wednesday described their heartbreak and anger at losing 10 colleagues in the blast.

They also raised questions at why instead of ordering an evacuation National Security requested the team, comprised of nine male fire fighters and a female paramedic, be deployed to the site.

Another source at the port confirmed that fireworks were also stored alongside the ammonium nitrate, which is understood to be a point of questioning among the 16 port officials arrested.

He said the fireworks were supposed to sell at auction and were only temporarily there.

The Lebanese authorities believe that 2,750 tonnes of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, which is used to make fertilisers and bombs, was set alight, creating what is believed to be the largest non-nuclear blast in modern history.

Anti-government protesters try to remove a concrete wall installed by security forces in Beirut, Lebanon

Reports have suggested that fireworks may have been stored within the same hanger that caught fire while welding work was being conducted nearby.

Photos taken within the port of the initial fire showed the crackle and pop of what looked like fireworks going off, before the full blast erupts.

Several leaked letters sent over the last six years between the Beirut Port Authority, customs, security forces and the judiciary show that they were aware of the presence of the ammonium nitrate and the danger it posted after it was confiscated from a ship in 2013. The security forces apparently investigated the situation in late 2019, and referred the findings to the prime minister’s office, army intelligence and customs.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun admitted on Friday night he was informed of the deadly stockpile at least three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed”.

But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port and that previous governments had been told of the presence of the cargo.

One fire fighter, who asked not to be named as he was not permitted to speak to the media, said he did not understand therefore why his co-workers were sent to put out the blaze.

“If national security knew there was a problem in Hanger 12, why did they request the fire fighters come and put out the fire there?” he asked.

He also questioned why none of the officials responsible for knowing what was in the warehouse were at the port at the time of the explosion.

“I was sent a photo of the team trying to open the warehouse door by force, there should be two keys for each warehouse, which those officials would have had. Why weren’t they to give them keys? Is it because they didn’t want to risk being there?” he asked.

A Lebanese protester carries a wounded demonstrator away from clashes in downtown Beirut

He also spoke of his heartbreak having lost so many team members.

Eli Khozami, whose body was discovered overnight Saturday, was married less than a month ago while Charbel Karam, who is still missing with her baby girl.

Sahar Fares, the female paramedic, was confirmed dead soon after the blast and buried in an emotional funeral on Thursday with her fiancée.

The rest of the missing – Najib and Charbel Hitti, Ralph Mallahi, Joe Noun, Rami Kaaki, Joe Bou Saab and Mathal Hawa – are presumed dead.

“You eat, work and live with these people. They are closer than family” the firefighter said. “I feel like a lost ship. I haven’t been able to cry, I am numb.”

Both the port workers and the fire fighter described the horrific scenes and heartbreak in the aftermath of the blast.

“When I reached the port didn’t find anything in the place, the building was almost destroyed,” said one of the port workers.

“The scene was indescribable, there were bodies everywhere.”

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