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Flats fire leaves dozens homeless

A fire destroyed three flats on three separate floors of an Abu Dhabi apartment block while most of the residents were out at Friday prayers yesterday.

ABU DHABI // Dozens of people were left homeless yesterday after a fire destroyed a flat on each of three floors in a 12-storey apartment building in central Abu Dhabi. The fire began around 1pm on the fifth floor of the Youssef al Fardan building on Al Falah Street. It burned for two and a half hours, reaching the building's seventh floor and destroying apartment numbers 504, 604 and 704. Lt Col Mohammed al Naimi, the head of the Abu Dhabi Emergency and Public Safety Department, said no one was injured.

"The residents of the building are mostly bachelors, so the block was nearly empty as everyone was attending Friday prayers," he said. Col al Naimi said the blaze was caused by "carelessness", speculating that a stove or other appliance might have been left unattended. The building was more than 20 years old, and although it had been maintained externally, the inside had been neglected, he said. Old buildings could still be "durable" but they needed to update their safety standards, said Col al Naimi said.

The residents of the building are mostly from Pakistan and India. Most flats have four or five people sleeping in each room. According to residents who live on the three affected floors, the fire started in a room where four Indians lived. Shahid Asgar, 34, a Pakistani investor, lives on the fifth floor of the building but was in the mosque when the fire broke out. He said the building lacked adequate fire escapes. "We don't have anything like that," Mr Asgar said. "The only way out would be through the windows." Hider Hassan, a 45-year-old Pakistani who works for Etisalat, was in his office when the fire happened.

"It was the room next to mine. Four Indians live there but I don't know them, personally," he said. "I believe they left something on the cook while they went to prayers, or it was because of the air conditioner. Now, in the summer, people keep the AC on around the clock," Mr Hassan said. Several residents said the fire took all that they owned. Maniyan Thazhaputhan-Veettil, an Indian driver for Avis Rent a Car, stood watching the fire burn. "I lost everything," he said. "I don't know what I will do." He did not have insurance, and neither did the other 14 men with whom he shared his three-bedroom flat. Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil said he lost Dh750 (US$200), his clothes, and a number of important documents such as his Indian identity card and tax papers.

Saji Luk, an Indian who lives on the 11th floor, said it would be difficult for the people who lost flats to find affordable housing in the city. "The biggest problem in the city is no middle-level accommodation for the single bachelors or the middle-income people," he said. Gerlyn Domingo, a 32-year-old Filipina clerk at Daiso who lives in a four-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor, said: "I had my laptop inside, everything was there. I have nothing, only myself." Ms Domingo shares one of the rooms in the apartment with her sister and three other women. Five or six people live in each room in her flat. "Mostly it's bachelors," she said, "but we took that room because it was cheap."

Police started to let people back into the building around 9pm. Hundreds of men clamoured around the entrance, pushing to get to the front of the line to re-enter. As the night progressed, men began to appear on the balconies of the upper floors. For those whose apartments were burnt, the picture was bleak. On the burnt-out seventh floor, filthy water stood several inches deep as residents attempted to mop it into unlit stairwells. Unnikrishnan Mothanga, who lived in the same three-bedroom flat as Mr Thazhaput-Veettil, said simply: "We have no place to go." Sreedharan Dottayickuttappu, a father of three from Kerala who works in catering at Abu Dhabi airport and has lived the capital for 30 years, lost all his possessions including his Indian passport and ID card.

"I am very sad," he said. "I will sleep tonight on the road. I have friends, but there is no space at their flats." klewis@thenational.ae hhassan@thenational.ae

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