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BEIRUT: For nearly three years now, 10 portraits on the outer wall of a Beirut fire station have honoured its firefighters killed in the explosion at the city’s port.

Their surviving colleagues, grinding on as Lebanon’s economic meltdown guts their salaries and budgets for repairs and equipment while a threat of wildfires looms large, say Aug 4, 2020, remains burned in their memories.

“As a fire brigade, we extract corpses, we see ugly things other people can’t bear … but the port blast was something else,” brigade chief Captain Ali Najem told Reuters.

Ten members of the Beirut Fire Brigade, who arrived at the port that evening following a call about a fire, were eviscerated minutes later by one of the largest-ever non-nuclear explosions.

More than 220 people were killed in the blast caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded at the port years earlier. Political pressure has derailed an investigation that sought to prosecute powerful people.

Najem recalls pulling up minutes after the blast to find the first team’s fire truck had been blown to smithereens, later scouring smouldering rubble with a flashlight, identifying one of his lifeless team members by her long hair.

It took weeks to find and bury all the rescuers. Since then, challenges have kept piling up, Najem says.

Four years of financial collapse left firefighters countrywide without enough spare parts for trucks, fireproof clothing and other equipment. Some ended up switching jobs as the value of their salaries collapsed with the local currency.

At the same time, demands kept rising. Najem’s firefighters deployed to Turkey and Syria to help respond to the Feb. 6 earthquake and have jumped into action across Lebanon to help fight wildfires. 3 years since port blast, Lebanon’s firefighters grind on as challenges pile up

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