Residents of Beirut, Lebanon, were dismayed on Thursday to see a plume of smoke rising from their seaport only a month after a titanic explosion killed over 200 people and damaged much of the city.
The fire, which broke out in a storehouse of oil and tires in the duty-free area of the port, spread to a warehouse containing food aid donated by the Red Cross to help Lebanon recover from the August explosion.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Thursday that its humanitarian operation in Lebanon could be “seriously disrupted” by the fire since the damaged warehouse holds thousands of food parcels and half a million liters of oil.
Firefighters said they were able to bring the blaze under control on Friday, but the political firestorm is still heating up.
Understandably nervous residents of the city reportedly scrambled for cover when they saw the plume of smoke, fearful that another massive explosion could be imminent. The BBC reported that some people gathered their families and fled Beirut entirely when they saw the smoke.
“For sure we were scared,” one man told the BBC. “It’s only been a month since the explosion that destroyed Beirut. We saw the same thing happening again.”
The public will not be pleased to learn that vitally-needed humanitarian aid was damaged by the fire. Anger is growing that another calamity was allowed to occur at the vitally important port, especially since the origins of the blaze – and the massive August blast, and a smaller fire at the port earlier this week – are uncertain.
Former parliamentarian and party leader Walid Jumblat gave support on Friday to a popular theory that the fire was started to destroy evidence related to the August explosion.
“They burned evidence fearing a bold investigator with a conscience, or fearing an honest employee, and those are many in this criminal administration,” Jumblat said, vowing that the guilty parties “will not escape punishment.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, the only top official who did not resign after the explosion, suggested on Thursday that the fire could have been caused by negligence, a mistake, or deliberate sabotage.
“In all cases, the cause must be known as soon as possible and the perpetrators held to account,” Aoun said.
Public works minister Nichel Najjar resigned along with the rest of the Lebanese administration after the big explosion, but has not yet been replaced Najjar said on Thursday that the fire was caused by sparks thrown from a power tool during construction work.
Port of Beirut Director Bassem al-Qaisi said the fire started among some barrels of cooking oil and might have been “the result of heat or some other mistake.”
Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib said on Friday that the port fire was “unjustifiable” and promised an investigation.
“Accountability is an essential condition not to repeat such painful incidents,” Adib said.
The office of temporary Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm announced on Thursday that State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat has been instructed to conduct “an instant and thorough investigation” of the fire, mindful of the “delicacy and seriousness of the incident.” Oueidat was ordered to personally inspect the site of the fire. Lebanon’s military police said they are also investigating the fire.