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Residents allowed back to Al Falah flats gutted by fire

Some of the residents of flats gutted by fire inside an apartment block on Al Falah Street are allowed back to survey the damage. Video and slideshow

ABU DHABI // Some of the residents of flats gutted by fire inside an apartment block on Al Falah Street were allowed into their rooms yesterday to survey the damage. As many as 80 people were left homeless by the blaze on Friday. Some were escorted into their homes by emergency officials who asked them questions about the fire. No one was injured in the blaze. Residents said the 12-storey building lacked fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers and emergency exits. Shahid Asgar, 34, a Pakistani investor, said the "only way out would be through the windows."

Residents said they had few options for shelter unless they were allowed to move back in. "We cannot go anywhere," said Anjun Rafiq, 51, a pharmacist from Pakistan. "We should be provided with temporary accommodation. We cannot stay here. We cannot live here. We can't even clean." Mr Rafiq lived in flat 604 - where officials believe the fire began - and was into his room as he discussed the fire with an investigator.

He could not remove any possessions but was happy with what he saw. "Our holy book, the Quran, that is safe, and that is the most important thing, thank God," he said. Mr Rafiq added, "My passport and personal documents were all in a tub under the bed, so they're safe also, thanks to God." For shelter, he is relying on neighbours across the hall. Col Mohammed al Naimi, the head of the Abu Dhabi Emergency and Public Safety Department, said the fire was probably caused by "carelessness". Someone likely forgot to turn off a stove or small appliance, he said.

The blaze broke out during prayers on Friday afternoon. Black smoke quickly enveloped five storeys of the building, thought to be around 20 years old. Five flats on consecutive floors were damaged, beginning with number 404 and extending up to 804. Each was padlocked as the investigation continued. It was the second major fire to hit an ageing apartment tower in the city centre in four months. In December, a fire in a poorly maintained apartment block in the Tourist Club area killed two men. Dozens more suffered broken bones as they jumped from balconies.

That fire prompted the Government to introduce a law requiring new buildings to be fitted with safety measures. Although those safety standards are expected to be passed this year, they will not apply to the older buildings in the capital. Mr Rafiq said many of his neighbours still did not know what happened to their passports, degrees, laptops, cameras and clothing. Because the fire happened at prayer time, many residents had also left their wallets and mobile phones at home as well.

Another resident of 604, Ruthann Lacar, 31, a saleswoman from the Philippines, said she could hear her sister's mobile ringing inside the locked flat. She was not allowed to retrieve it. The building houses hundreds of middle-class workers and bachelors who live four or five to a room. The monthly rent for each room is about Dh3,000 (US$816). Many residents paid their share of the rent in cash, money they accumulated throughout the month and kept in their rooms.

Several feared they had lost thousands of dirhams that would have been used to find new accommodation. "The apartment was not that much good, but we were searching for cheap rent," said Gerlyn Domingo, 33, a Filipina saleswoman who lived in the same flat as Ms Lacar and Mr Rafiq. She spent the night at a friend's flat and had nothing but her mobile phone and a borrowed white T-shirt and red cotton trousers.

She walked through the apartment with police yesterday. What had not been destroyed by fire was ruined by smoke and water. Waterlogged mattresses, carpets and trash accumulated in the corridors. "It's all messy and we cannot take anything - even important things like documents," she said. Residents speculated over the cause of the blaze. "I don't know what happened," said Waqas Liaquat, 27, from Pakistan who works at a bank and lives in 604. He said he was the last to leave his shared room before attending prayers and that he turned off all the appliances and lights before leaving. "I wasn't even ironing my clothes.

"I cannot say what happened. But I will not blame anyone. It was an accident." As smoke filled 604 and no fire alarm went off, the role of alerting flatmates about the danger fell to Miss Domingo and Mr Rafiq. They said they knew something was amiss when they smelled something burning. The room where they suspect the fire began was locked. "I tried to break it down," Mr Rafiq said. "But then there was too much smoke inside the flat. We had to run."

@Email:jgerson@thenational.ae

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