The fire engulfed a warehouse storing engine oil and vehicle tires nearly 40 days after a deadly blast rocked the nation.

A raging fire leaves a column of oily smoke from Beirut's port, ground zero to a blast that disfigured the nation's capital only a month before.
A raging fire leaves a column of oily smoke from Beirut's port, ground zero to a blast that disfigured the nation's capital only a month before. (Aya Majzoub / )

A huge fire broke out on Thursday at the Port of Beirut, triggering panic among residents nearly 40 days after the massive explosion that disfigured the capital last month.

A column of thick black smoke billowed from the port at midday, with orange flames leaping from the ground. 

Smoke covered the capital and firefighters and ambulances rushed to the scene. Army helicopters were taking part in efforts to extinguish the fire.

It was the second fire at the port this week. On Tuesday, a small fire erupted, also creating some panic, that was quickly extinguished.

Haitham, a 33-year-old worker at a company at the port, told AFP how he fled the new fire in fear.

"We were working when all of a sudden they started yelling at us to get out," he said. 

"There was welding going on ... and a fire broke out. We don't know what happened.

"We dropped everything and started running ... it reminded us of the explosion."

The interim head of the port, Bassem al Kaissi, told Lebanese television channel LBC that the blaze started in the port's free zone, where an importer had stocked cooking oil containers and tyres.

The fire "started with oil containers before moving on to the tyres", he said. "It was either caused by the heat or by a mistake. It's too early to say."

Residents panicked

“We opened all windows and are in the corridor right now,” said Dana Awad, a mother of two girls in a Beirut neighbourhood. “I am still feeling the earth shake. Living a flashback.” She was referring to the tremor that preceded the August 4 explosion.

Panicked residents, still struggling to get over last month's catastrophic explosion, cracked open windows and called and texted each other to warn them of the new danger. Local TV stations said companies that have offices near the port asked their employees to leave the area.

A video circulating on social media showed port workers running away in fear as soon as the fire broke out, a chilling reminder of last month’s blast that killed dozens of port employees and 10 firefighters. 

Lebanese troops closed the major road that passes near the port rerouting traffic to other areas.

Attempt to destroy evidence?

Lebanese speculated in the wake of Thursday's fire that it could be an attempt to remove evidence of last month's explosion from the scene. Some hid in bathrooms, others dropped what they were doing and rushed home.

Earlier this month, the Lebanese army said it discovered more than 4 tons of ammonium nitrate in four containers stored near the port that it said were “dealt with”.

The August 4 explosion killed more than 190 people, injured around 6,500 and damaged thousands of buildings in the Lebanese capital. The sight of another huge fire a month later created panic among residents traumatised by last month's explosion.

State-run National News Agency said the fire was at a warehouse where tires are placed. It added that firefighters are dealing with the blaze.

Thick black columns of smoke rose into the sky, as the army said it had engulfed a warehouse storing engine oil and vehicle tyres.

"Insane fire at the port, causing a panic all across Beirut. We just can't catch a break," Aya Majzoub, a researcher for the group Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

"We can't take this much trauma," another user wrote.

Criminology researcher Omar Nashabe tweeted about the latest disaster: "Where are we living?"

"This is the scene of the crime a month ago! Where is the judiciary? Where is the state? Where is responsibility?"

The Lebanese army confirmed that helicopters will be used in an effort to control the fire at the Beirut port.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies