Port blast anniversary

If the port silos could talk

Devastated by the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion, the grain silos have become a national emblem

If the port silos could talk

“I like to compare them to three ranks of soldiers. Those in the front line are all dead. The others in the second were hit hard, and the ones in the last rank stayed put,” says Emmanuel Durand, a French engineer and a silo expert, describing what remains of the impressive, gutted structure. (Credit: Dia Mrad)

Should the Beirut port silos be demolished or preserved? The question continues to spark controversy in a society torn between wishing to sink into amnesia and wanting to keep the structure as a constant reminder of what happened.

The silos still stand there, at the Beirut port. They are mere mutilated towering blocks now, but they are still standing, overlooking the sea to the north and the city to the south.

They are even said to have saved lives by absorbing a significant part of the shockwave generated by the deadly blast, which was equivalent to the detonation of 600 tons of TNT.

Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate exploded on Aug. 4, 2020, inside Warehouse 12, pulverizing the port’s infrastructure and ripping through entire neighborhoods in the capital.

Located about 30 meters from the warehouse, the grain silos — consisting of 48 sturdy cylinders that are 50 meters high and divided into three rows — acted as a shield, sparing the city’s western part from the devastation wrought by the deadly blast.

The silos took the full brunt of the explosion.

“I like to compare them to three ranks of soldiers. Those in the front line are all dead. The others in the second were hit hard, and the ones in the last rank stayed put,” says Emmanuel Durand, a French engineer and a silo expert, describing what remains of the impressive, gutted structure.

Financed by a Kuwaiti fund and built by the Czech construction company Prumstav, the Beirut silos were inaugurated in 1970 by the late President Charles Helou and were, at that time, the largest in the Middle East.

A civil engineering report found in the archives of the National Library of Technology in Prague and translated into Arabic by Gioia Sawaya, a Lebanese architect, traces the history of the structure’s architecture, described as “remarkable.”

Some 25,000 cubic meters of concrete were poured to build the blocks, which had a total capacity of 105,000 tons of grain; this was increased to 120,000 tons in 1997.

The silos were designed with automated equipment for unloading ships, vehicles and trains. Everything was managed from a control room located on top of the building, 60 meters above ground.

Lebanon depends on imports for 85 percent of its cereal needs. By building the silos, the country took a step forward on the road of development and thus ensured food security for its population, even during the 1975–90 Civil War.

The Beirut silos should have celebrated 50 years of activity on Aug. 17, 2020.

Although they withstood two wars and were hit by missiles, they had been regularly maintained, which kept them in good condition.

But on Aug. 4, 2020, at 6:07 p.m., a few moments were enough to leave the towering buildings permanently scarred, much to the surprise of Jiri Pozar, a former representative of Prumstav.

“The structure had been the target of several armed attacks, but nothing happened to it. The explosion must have been extraordinary,” Pozar said, according to Czech media reports.

The explosion was indeed extraordinary, to the point that it shattered the structure’s foundations, made up of thousands of underground pencil-like stakes.

“There was a shockwave in the ground too and not just in the air, which caused the underground stakes to be smashed,” explains Wassim Raphael, the dean of the Engineering Faculty at Saint Joseph University.

Both Durand and Raphael are part of the Beirut Port Silos group — a crisis unit created at the direction of caretaker Economy Minister Raoul Nehme in the explosion’s aftermath.

The group’s work aims to monitor the structure’s movements with state-of-the-art devices designed to take 3D and and infrared images, which Durand managed to secure thanks to a German donation.

In March, measurements showed that the structure’s northern section, which experienced the most damage from the explosion, is tipping over and in danger of collapsing.

These findings buried any hope of rebuilding the silos on the same site, prompting experts to advocate for the northern block’s demolition.

‘The structure must come back to life’

“Do you see there? This was a real mountain of grains and rubble in front of us. We had to look for colleagues there,” Amine al-Kazzi says while standing at the foot of the silos.

Under a blazing sun, Kazzi and his colleague Elias Zougheib recall a dreadful three weeks of searching the site for missing people in the explosion’s aftermath.

“We were there day and night. Nine people were pulled out from the rubble. It took us 20 days to find the last one,” says Khazzi, 31, who was the head of the silo quality control department.

“We didn’t really pull people out, but human remains. Those who say that some were still alive awaiting rescue have no idea what happened here,” says Zougheib, who oversaw equipment control and maintenance at the silos.

The silo workers used to end their shift around 3 p.m., except on delivery days.

On the evening of Aug. 4, 15 men were assigned to unload a ship carrying grains. The nine men who lost their lives that evening sought refuge in the building, which had long been considered a fortress, thinking it would protect them. The other six, who were seriously injured, remained outside.

Today, what was once a bustling hub for activity and home to colleagues who shared the noble mission of supplying quality grain to the country’s flour mills, has been reduced to a desolate landscape.

On the ground near the structure, one can see stretches of grains mixed with rat droppings and seashells that were spit up by the sea at the time of the explosion.

“Honestly, I feel nothing when I look at the silos now. They don’t mean anything anymore. It’s an empty place. I think they should be taken down,” says Amine, who had worked there for three years. He adds that he has overcome the pain phase, and he wants to turn the page now.

For Elias, 51, who had worked at the silos for 30 years, things are different. He feels indebted to this institution, where his father had also worked.

“For me, it is not over yet. When I look at them, I see myself with my friends. I loved my job,” he says.

“Everything was easy for me when people learned I worked in the silos. It was easy for me to get loans, visas. … I was proud of what I did for a living,” Elias adds.

Amine and Elias are among the handful of employees who still come to the site to identify toxic substances in the field and regularly take the temperature of the mounds of grain, whose fermentation can cause fires.

Their on-site missions, however, may soon come to a halt as the French waste management company Recygroup starts processing the grain.

The future looks uncertain for the remaining 69 silo workers, most of whom have been temporarily assigned to various tasks within the Economy Ministry, under which their positions fall.

In his office at the ministry, which was ransacked during the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising, the silo director, Assaad Haddad, is still waiting for answers.

“We are trying to restart our activity, but too many obstacles stand in the way,” says Haddad, who managed the structure, which contained 45,000 tons of grain before the explosion.

Will the silos be demolished? When and where will new silos be built? Will they be spread across the country?

These questions remain unanswered due to the slow decision-making process in Lebanon, although the Kuwaitis have agreed to finance the construction.

The Council for Development and Reconstruction was commissioned to conduct a field study to identify locations suitable to accommodate such a structure.

“We are asking to be at least able to resume grain suction operations and to have temporary silos in the meantime,” Haddad says, adding that food security has been compromised since the silos’ destruction.

“The ships are currently being discharged by bulldozers. The grains are exposed to fuel oil and several human interventions. This is not to mention storage, which is also a problem because there isn’t enough room in the flour mills. So once more the grains have to be transported elsewhere,” he explains.

“All these measures can cause contamination. It wasn’t like that with us,” Haddad says.

The other challenge is the fate of the employees, who continue to be paid for now. However, the bankrupt state could decide to let them go at any time.

“It doesn’t matter whether the current structure is demolished or not, or whether the silos are built at the Beirut port or elsewhere. What matters is that they come back to life, especially because it was a profitable [institution],” Haddad says.

The silos should stay so they can see what they did to us

“I remember there was a glass room, and you could see the sea and the ships. Those are the only memories I have. I kind of forgot the rest,” says Tatiana Hasrouty, trying to recall childhood memories of visiting her father at work.

Hasrouty, 20, is standing on the sidewalk of the Charles Helou coastal highway, where it has become a common sight to see curious onlookers gather to take photos of the macabre scene of the ruined silos.

Ghassan Hasrouty, a father of four, devoted 38 years of his life to the silos before he was killed in the explosion.

Like all the families and relatives of the deceased victims, the wounds of Hasrouty and her family will likely never heal if those responsible for the explosion continue to live with impunity.

“I want the silos to remain as they are so that we are reminded every day of what they’ve done to us and for them to see it too. It’s not just about my father; it’s about all of us,” Hasrouty says.

The structure has become the tragic emblem of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of the 21st century. Its possible demolition stirs emotions among citizens who are keen on preserving it.

“We are witnessing a paradigm shift within Lebanese society that wants to break away from the culture of [collective] amnesia. The silos are one of the best [reminders] of the scale of what happened that day,” Carlos Mubarak, an architect who came up with the idea of a project to establish a memorial park around the structure’s ruins, tells L’Orient-Le Jour.

But now they appear to be in danger of collapsing. The latest measurements from the inclinometers that Durand installed in July show that the southern bloc has also tilted.

“It’s a slight incline. The northern part has also continued to move but at a slower pace. This may be related to the temperatures, but we can’t conclude anything for the moment. We must keep monitoring,” Raphael explains.

Surveillance is all the more necessary now that Recygroup employees will be working close to the structure to recover and process grains for recycling.

“If a single piece of concrete falls from the top, it could kill many,” Raphael warns.

So the question is: is the idea of creating a memorial park around an unstable structure even conceivable ?

“It is possible to do work to reinforce the building, but the financial cost is likely to be enormous, and from a security point of view it is extremely dangerous. My opinion hasn’t changed on the matter: the silos must be taken down,” Raphael adds.

Those who are against preserving the silos argue that it would be absurd to monopolize such a large area within the port infrastructure, which is intended for the country’s economic activity.

“Just to secure the area will need thousands of square meters. Can you imagine a memorial occupying half of the port’s area?” Khazzi says.

In its “Beirut Urban Declaration,” the Order of Engineers and Architects advocates for the preservation of the silos as “witness ruins.”

Although the Lebanese capital has many landmark ruins and bears marks from conflicts that once plagued the city, such as the bullet-riddled Holiday Inn hotel and the bubble-shaped old cinema known as The Egg, there is no memorial along the model of Hiroshima, for the public and people to visit and stroll around.

“I wish that something like that could be done. Imagine me in 10 years bringing my children there to show them where their grandfather used to work,” Hasrouty says joyfully.

Meanwhile, Moubarak believes that “the economic loss argument is simply not the problem.”

“There are a thousand ways to diversify port revenues through a viable model. In my opinion, this site has become sacred in a sense. Therefore, we can no longer think of it in terms of market value, but must look at its symbolic value,” he adds.

So far, no agenda has been put forward by the Beirut Port Silos group in this regard, as it is impossible to predict when the structure could collapse, partially or entirely.

Many Lebanese worry that the demolition of the silos, seen as a guarantor of collective memory, would let this tragic event, which has marked an entire generation, slip gradually into oblivion.

But how to keep the memory of the silos once they no longer exist at the Beirut port?

“The deconstruction of this national emblem could be part of the memorialization process. We could also have architecture models of the structure, or simulate it.,” Moubarak says.

Nothing is lost if we choose not to forget.

Should the Beirut port silos be demolished or preserved? The question continues to spark controversy in a society torn between wishing to sink into amnesia and wanting to keep the structure as a constant reminder of what happened.The silos still stand there, at the Beirut port. They are mere mutilated towering blocks now, but they are still standing, overlooking the sea to the north and the city...