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A fire now

The chemical had been lying unattended for years and was a disaster waiting to happen.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

Beirut, the volatile capital of Lebanon, is burning and for the second time in a span of 40 days. It is rather intriguing that Thursday’s eruption also happened at the Port of Beirut, the site of last month’s catastrophic explosion which killed 200 people and caused devastation in parts of the embattled city. The residents are in a state of shock and awe. Intriguing too must be the timeline.

The port was devastated in the explosion on 4 August when no less than 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded. The chemical had been lying unattended for years and was a disaster waiting to happen. The blast was devastating and blew up windows, doors and walls miles away, and was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus. Negligent nonchalance is the thread that links the two disasters in two months.

While the storage of ammonium nitrate had ignited the explosion in August, Thursday’s fire started at a warehouse where oil and tyres are kept in the duty-free zone. This isn’t a casual eye-witness account, but the version of the Lebanese army. Gross negligence is the new danger that the country has had to countenance.

It has happened at a critical juncture, specifically when panicked residents are struggling to get over last month’s catastrophic explosion in the city’s nervecentre that killed a large number of port employees and as many as ten firefighters. The explosion in August, attributed to the government’s negligence and mismanagement, has been the single-most destructive blast in the history of Lebanon.

Albeit on a smaller scale, a not dissimilar mishap has now occurred. There is speculation in Lebanon that Thursday’s fire could be an attempt to remove evidence of last month’s explosion and the fear that more chemicals might be present in the wreckage of the port. The Lebanese army recently claimed to have discovered more than four tons of ammonium nitrate near the port.

It is pretty obvious that the the port needs safety measures to be put in place and for hazardous material to be stored with greater care. French and Italian chemical experts, working amidst the remains of the port, have identified more than 20 containers carrying dangerous chemicals. Clearly, no lessons were drawn from the accident in August.

The Lebanese are quite totally bamboozled and are uncertain whether the fire has been the fallout of excessive heat or “some other mistake”. Beirut has arguably paid the price twice for such “mistakes”. Overall, though, the Lebanese have been victims of poor governance, and while protests had followed the August blast, only cosmetic changes took place. These do not come close to addressing a problem that is endemic.