Warehouse 12: fireworks were stored next to ammonium nitrate in Beirut hangar, former workers say

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Fireworks were stored in the same hangar as the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that caused the massive explosion and its wave of destruction in Beirut on Tuesday, two former port employees have confirmed to The National.

The port workers said the warehouse was one of the shipping hub’s most closely guarded areas. One of them, Yusuf Shehadi, said warnings of the dangers posed by the warehouse stock had been made frequently by his colleagues and other bureaucrats.

Yet multiple pleas for action were either caught up in infighting across bureaucracies, or vetoed by higher powers, pointing to negligence as the cause of the blast that killed at least 163 people and injured more than 5,000. Fireworks were seen exploding in video footage captured seconds before the second, seismic explosion.

Their claims raise further questions about how the fireworks came to be there, why they were stored so close to the hazardous cache of explosive material, and why they remained in the vicinity for years until disaster hit the city. The Lebanese elite’s perceived negligence and response to the disaster eventually brought down the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Monday, as he announced the resignation of his cabinet.

As a domestic investigation overseen by the military police - derided by many as illegitimate - continues, the focus is shifting to what detonated the storage facility containing a cache of chemicals that effectively became a ticking bomb.

The ammonium nitrate was stored at the hangar after customs officials confiscated the chemical load from the Russian-owned Rhosus vessel in 2013. It sat in storage for years on the edge of a metropolis of 2.4 million people. But the probe is now trying to ascertain how the explosion itself, which caused a magnitude 3.3 earthquake, came to be.

Suspicion has fallen on the maintenance team that was tasked with fixing a gate to Warehouse 12 before the explosion on August 4.

Mr Shehadi, who worked at the port from 2009 until March this year and now lives in Canada, said he had spoken with a former colleague that afternoon, who told him a welder was being used to plug a hole in the area to stop materials from being stolen.

“Around 5pm, the fire started,” he told The National. “They had fixed the door, put it back and afterwards the fire ignited, within 10-15 mins.”

That fire set off the fireworks, which were the first to explode, igniting the ammonium nitrate and causing the blast to follow, Mr Shehadi said. Those who fixed the doors were the first to be blamed by the Lebanese authorities.

“The workers who were fixing the door are Syrian,” he claimed. “The Lebanese government arrested them.”

Destruction at Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. AFP
Destruction at Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. AFP

Mr Shehadi on Friday told British newspaper The Guardian that in his early months on the job, in late 2009, or early 2010, he had been asked to move fireworks and other goods confiscated by port authorities into warehouse 12. Around four years later, he said he helped supervise the extraction from the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus of 2,750 tonnes of material, which turned out to be the ammonium nitrate.

“When I was working at the port, in the maintenance department, the head of the department was Mustafa Farshoukh,” he told The National. A judicial source confirmed that authorities have arrested Farshoukh, frozen his assets and prevented him from leaving the country.

“He took an order from Hassan Quraitem, the man in charge of the port, and we were told to empty the ship’s cargo. It took us 4 to 5 days to empty everything as it was carrying a lot of load, we placed everything in Hangar 12.” Lebanese police have placed Quraitem under arrest and frozen his assets in relation to the disaster, according to a list of suspects released by prosecutors.

The National has reached out to Farshoukh and Quaraitem for comment.

Mahmoud Ali, a second worker at the port whose name has been changed for security reasons, told The National that warehouse number 12 was not in regular use, but was kept as a place to store banned or dangerous materials or materials that had been confiscated by the government. His claim suggests knowledge of the explosive materials at the highest levels of government, specifically the Justice Ministry.

Anti-government protesters hurl stones at Lebanese riot police during a protest against the Lebanese politicians who have ruled the country for decades, outside of the Lebanese Parliament in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Anti-government protesters hurl stones at Lebanese riot police during a protest against the Lebanese politicians who have ruled the country for decades. EPA

People view the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

French rescue team member and a search and rescue dog walk near the damaged grain silo at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

An excavator cleans debris near the damaged grain silo at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

Members of forensic team walk near rubble at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

People observe two coffins, damaged by Tuesday's massive explosion that rocked the city, in Beirut, Lebanon. Getty Images

Structural damage, caused by Tuesday's massive explosion that rocked the city, is visible at St Michel Maronite Churchs cemetery in Beirut, Lebanon. Getty Images

Lebanese army member stands at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

A handout picture obtained from Qatar's Internal Security Force, shows members of its search and rescue unit assisting their Lebanese counterparts in seeking survivors on the site of a massive blast at the Beirut port. AFP

A handout picture obtained from Qatar's Internal Security Force shows members of its search and rescue unit assisting their Lebanese counterparts in seeking survivors on the site of a massive blast at the Beirut port. AFP

A forensic inspector walks on rubble at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

A view of rubble near the damaged grain silo at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

Damaged cars are seen at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

An abandoned shoe is seen at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon. Reuters

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“[The warehouse] was constantly closed by locks. Nobody knew what was stacked inside,” he said. “However, those in charge only used to open the warehouse to stack inside it materials confiscated upon judicial orders or perilous products such as firecrackers and explosive devices. I have been working in the port for over 20 years, during which I never heard there were any weapons or artillery (rounds) inside.”

The highest authority at the port is customs, and they are in possession of a copy of the keys for any of the port doors or ships, Mr Shehadi said. Customs handed down the order to unload the firecrackers in 2009 and, later, the ammonium, to the head of operations of the port in coordination with Mohammad Al Mawla, the head of administration there. Lebanon’s head of customs Badri Daher has blamed Mr Mawla for allowing the shipment to enter the country.

State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat was not immediately available for comment when contacted by The National.

Establishing the chain of command in the port, one of Lebanon’s most sensitive strategic sites, is considered an important step in an ongoing probe into the cause of the catastrophe.

But uncovering the political decisions that led to the disaster is likely to prove a far more difficult task - and is central to the demands of protesters who took to the streets of nearby Martyrs’ Square in recent days to demand the resignation of the government.

With confidence low in the integrity of any local investigation, the public testimony of port workers and others with first hand knowledge of how decisions were made there is likely to prove instructive in any broader probe.

An international examination of the disaster is being broadly called for in Lebanon, even by officials such as the leader of the Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, who is one of the main figures in the country’s political scene and widely considered to be untouchable.

Protesters have fought running battles with riot police and soldiers as they moved towards parliament in downtown Beirut. In a bid to placate the anger, four ministers - information, finance, environment and justice - resigned ahead of Mr Diab’s announcement.

Before his resignation, he said he would call early elections in two months. That concession was widely seen as a placatory gesture designed to buy time as the country’s leaders face withering criticism and scrutiny over their role in the debacle at the port, until they were forced to climb down just days after the blast.

What next for Lebanon remains unclear as months of political wrangling and chaos could lie ahead. But what is for sure is that residents across Beirut have little faith in the authorities’ ability to hold senior officials to account for the devastation the explosion caused, or to harness and distribute aid for the recovery effort.

“They will not get away with it this time,” said Jumah Maahmoud, a shopkeeper in the Sodeco neighbourhood. “If they did,” how would we look. We as Lebanese have to start to seize our rights and our destiny.”

Bassam Zaazaa contributed reporting from Beirut.

Updated: August 10, 2020 09:35 PM

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