A little over a month after a massive blast devastated Beirut, a raging fire in the Lebanese capital’s port on Thursday spewed thick plumes of smoke over the city.
Video and images posted online showed flames leaping inside a column of black smoke in the same area where nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded on Aug. 4. Other images captured the tornado-like swirl of smoke, rising high into the sky before diffusing out across the city where it hung in a cloud.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, but the presidential Twitter account of Lebanese President Michel Aoun said it might have been the result of sabotage, a technical error or negligence.
“In all cases, the cause must be known as soon as possible and the perpetrators held to account,” it added.
The director general of the Beirut port told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation that the blaze broke out in the building of a company that imports frying oil. It then spread to rubber tires.
The governor of Beirut told residents to evacuate the streets and warned live on LBC that by staying put their lives were in danger and they risked impeding the firetrucks.
Attempts to extinguish the blaze were underway with the help of army helicopters, a spokesperson for the Lebanese army also told the broadcaster. Photos showed firefighters battling the blaze.
Reports of the fire began circulating on social media shortly after 1 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET). Three hours later, the director general of Civil Defense, Brig. Gen. Raymond Khattar, told LBC that the fire had been confined but that time was still needed to extinguish the blaze.
Fabrizio Carboni of the International Committee of the Red Cross later tweeted that a warehouse where thousands of food parcels were stored was on fire.
“Our humanitarian operation risks to be seriously disrupted,” he wrote.
Beirut residents remain on edge after the enormous blast killed 191 people and injured 6,000. It was considered to be one of the biggest nonnuclear explosions ever recorded.
A video circulating on social media appeared to show workers at the port running away as the fire raged behind them. Shouts of “let’s go, let’s go” in Arabic can be heard.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The event will likely trigger painful memories of last month’s blast for those working in the port as well as for emergency responders. Ten firefighters were among those killed in the August explosion.
Michel El Meouchi, 39, who was less than a mile away from the fire, described to NBC News that what appeared to be ash was falling from the sky.
His face mask that he wore to protect himself from the coronavirus acted as a shield against debris, he said.
“The sky is dark above us,” he said by phone from the city.
El Meouchi said one problem now in emergency situations was that it was hard to know who or what to trust.
“When you lose trust in the government, you know, what can we do?” he said.
Lebanon was already staggering under the weight of a spiraling economic crisis when last month’s explosion devastated downtown Beirut, leaving thousands homeless.
In the wake of the blast, public anger boiled over once again, triggering the collapse of the government that many accuse of chronic mismanagement and corruption that is widely believed to have enabled the explosion to take place in the first place.
Najat Saliba, a professor specializing in atmospheric chemistry, warned the elderly and children in Beirut to protect themselves as far as possible from the smoke or even to leave the city.
Matthew Mulligan contributed.