ABU DHABI // An apartment block gutted by fire early yesterday morning had no sprinklers or smoke alarm system and had been scheduled for demolition. Two people were killed and dozens were injured after the fire tore through the eight-storey Saif Hashed al Qubaisi building in the Tourist Club Area in the early hours of Thursday.
Mohammed Saif, the owner of the 35-year-old building, said yesterday that it had also been the scene of a smaller fire in August last year. Scores of people were left trapped by the smoke and flames as three teams of firefighters used elevated hoses and hydraulic platforms to tackle the latest blaze. Panicking residents jumped to the ground from lower-floor balconies while others used makeshift ladders to scramble to safety in adjacent buildings.
Thirty-two people were injured in the blaze, with most suffering from smoke inhalation and broken bones caused by jumping from apartments. Last night, one person remained in a critical condition in Sheikh Khalifa Medical City after suffering a skull fracture. Residents reported that the elevators in the building had not worked for around 18 months and that a room housing the building's electrical junction boxes, where some believed the fire had started, had been used to store furniture.
The building had been at the centre of a two-year legal battle between property managers who wished to close and demolish the apartment block and residents who did not want to leave. "This building was very old and needs to be demolished," said Mr Saif. "We have been trying to get the people to vacate the building but they do not want to go. They do not listen to us. "We have a court order saying that they must leave the building by the end of this month. The case has been with the court for two years.
"It is going to be demolished," he said, adding that he planned to erect a new building. "What has happened here is very sad." Mr Saif said only 16 of the 32 apartments were occupied and bailiffs were due to remove any remaining tenants at the end of the month. The building was inhabited by low-paid labourers, with many rooms having been converted to sleep six or more people, police said. One of the dead was identified by relatives as Raja Mohammed Azim, 60, from Pakistan.
Mr Azim was married with four daughters, according to his cousin, Mohammed Sohrab. Mr Sohrab was at the scene and watched as a white body-bag containing Mr Azim's remains was lowered by crane from an upper- floor apartment The identity of the second victim was not known last night. Residents estimated that there were between 200 and 300 workers living in the building, predominately men from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Some complained the building was poorly maintained and rubbish was often left in corridors. Police said the fire began on the third floor, although eye witnesses maintained it began on the first floor. Col Abdulla Gahreeb, the director of the Abu Dhabi Civil Defence department, said the fire was extinguished after an hour but the cooling process continued until 6am. "The fire started on the third floor and spread through pipes to the fifth floor and then to the seventh and to the eighth due to the large number of wooden partitions that were being used to separate the rooms of the building's four-bedroom apartments," he said.
"The fire spread through the electric room. Civil defence rescued the tenants by breaking into the building. "One hundred were brought down though the fire exit, and 12 were asked to jump on the inflatable mattresses." Last night, residents were allowed back into the building and began the painstaking task of recovering water-damaged belongings. Parts of the building's interior were gutted by fire and much of the stairwell was left waterlogged, with walls and windows blackened and broken.
An investigation has yet to determine the cause of the blaze, although initial inquiries suggest it was an electrical fault. Emergency crews arrived on the scene within 15 to 30 minutes, according to bystanders, A handful of ropes was still dangling on the north side of the building yesterday, where people had climbed down the building to escape the fire. Several witnesses also reported residents escaping on to the roof, where they were rescued.
"The reason the fire spread so quickly is because the building was extremely old and unsafe to live in and does not have any fire safety tools," Col Gahreeb said. firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Hala Khalaf