Fall of Beirut port silos causes distress for those who wanted memorial

Collapse of silos' northernmost side blamed on weeks of government inaction, despite pleas from 2020 blast victims' families for monument

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For many, the imposing grain silos in Beirut's port symbolise several lessons: they are a testament to the downtrodden nation’s endurance in adversity, a memorial to the fallen victims of the port explosion on August 4, 2020, and a record of the criminal negligence which allowed thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate to rot in a port warehouse, before blowing up catastrophically.

Beirut’s grain silos famously shielded the western part of the capital from the force of the blast, which destroyed swathes of the eastern side of the city and killed at least 215 people. After the explosion, the imposing silos were partly destroyed but remained standing.

But on Sunday, after several weeks of continuously burning fire caused by leftover grain which ignited — and several weeks of calls for action by civil society activists to put out the fires and preserve the silos — part of the site eventually collapsed. The collapse retriggered trauma for many relatives of the fallen, a mere three days before the second anniversary of the blast.

From where the families of the victims of the Beirut port explosion are standing, the same carelessness and corruption behind the blast two years ago has now caused the fall of the grain silos.

Mariana Foudalian, who lost her 29-year-old sister Gaia in the 2020 explosion, was out to eat with her mother when the silos partially fell.

“Once we got the food, I got the news," she said. "I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep all night yesterday.”

Ms Foudalian said it was “cruel” to see the silos collapse only days before the second anniversary of the blast.

The fall of the silos has also posed a public health risk. Opposition MP Dr Najat Saliba, who is also a professor of atmospheric and analytical chemistry at the American University of Beirut, said the dust from the collapse could cause irritation and respiratory issues in the coming days, especially for residents living near the port.

A mixture of carbon dioxide, mould and fungi is likely permeating Beirut’s air, “but the good thing is that the wind was blowing away from the city towards the sea, and most of the dust that could carry some of those toxins have been pushed away from the city”, Dr Saliba said.

“That doesn’t mean the city didn't get some of it — but it was dispersed and diluted."

In the hours after the collapse, some residents living near the port reported minor irritation and a burning sensation in the eyes.

Since last week, when it became apparent a partial collapse of the silos was imminent, the ministries of environment and health have advised residents near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces, wear a mask and shut their windows to mitigate the health effects of particles and toxins in the air.

But in Lebanon, where state-supplied electricity is hardly existent due to the country's continuing economic collapse, opening windows in the suffocating summer heat is one of the primary methods for residents to cool off.

The fire at the silos which caused the collapse has been blamed on fermenting wheat stocks igniting in the summer heat.

A new strategy: Proactivity?

Health and environmental experts, including Dr Saliba, had since 2020 requested a plan of action to clear the grain from the silo ruins from successive cabinets and caretaker cabinets.

“We knew they would be source of mould or fungi and fire,” she said. “But we got no answers. It’s too late to do anything about it now.”

Two more silos on the structure’s north side are expected to collapse in the coming days. Dr Saliba suggested that the government should take a "proactive" role to address the imminent collapse, rather than a reactive approach.

The families of the victims of 2020, along with engineering experts, are pushing Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet to ensure the imminently falling silos will collapse away from the southern side. They want to ensure the southern side of the silos remains as a monument to those killed.

Dr Saliba explained the demand was strategic: “The southern silos are stable — we need to pressure the government to clean the grain from the silos and work to preserve it and turn it into a memorial.”

“We will continue to demand that the southern part remains,” said Cecile Roukoz, whose brother Joseph was killed in the port explosion.

Antonella Hitti lost three relatives in the blast — all of them firefighters responding to reports of a fire at the port warehouse, which blew up shortly after they arrived. The team of first responders perished, including Ms Hitti’s brother Najib, 26, her brother-in-law Charbel Karam and her cousin Charbel Hitti.

When the silos fell on Sunday, Ms Hitti said she felt an uncontrollable anger towards Lebanon’s ruling class, widely blamed for neglecting thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port for seven years.

An investigation into the blast by Human Rights Watch concluded that multiple Lebanese authorities were “at a minimum, criminally negligent.”

For Ms Hitti and Ms Roukoz, the failure to act to prevent the fire which led to the collapse symbolises a lack of dedication towards a domestic investigation into the blast, which has stalled since last year.

“After two years of criminally stalled justice,” Ms Roukoz said, “they razed the silos which we had requested should remain as a collective memory for the city and to the victims.”

In April the government approved the demolition of the silos on the basis that the structure was at risk of collapse.

Their demolition was a red line for some families of the more than 200 people killed in the explosion. The families responded by launching three separate lawsuits to stop the government from demolishing the remains of the grain silos — temporarily pausing demolition plans for the time being.

But Jad Tabet, President of the Order of Engineers and Architects in Beirut, told The National that "since the goal was to demolish the silos", it is possible the government intentionally allowed part of the northern silos to collapse.

He indicated several actions that the various successive cabinets could have taken — such as supporting the northern side or conducting structural studies — which were neglected.

“Since last year we’ve been asking them to remove the wheat which provoked the fire,” Ms Hitti said. “When the silos fell yesterday I really thought that I had pieces of our hearts still trapped inside. There are still parts of my brother’s body still in there. They did nothing. They left a fire without doing anything."

For her, the carelessness shown towards the fire which burnt for weeks was merely a reflection of the overall negligence which led to the blast — "it’s inside them and you can’t remove it", she said.

Now, the priority for those seeking to turn the silos into a memorial has shifted into preserving the structurally sound south side.

"The silos will be a monument, and they will continue to speak out on our behalf about this massive crime which tore through the city," Ms Roukoz insisted.

Updated: August 01, 2022, 4:18 PM