Dubai // The fire that gutted the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers two weeks ago was started by a cigarette, probably thrown from a balcony, the official report has concluded.
The discarded butt is thought to have ignited rubbish piled up outside the building, according to the report compiled by the Dubai Police forensic department.
It found the November 18 fire, that gutted half the tower block, began in a pile of paper, tape and wood in an outdoor passageway at the base of the building. It had been left by contractors working on a shop inside the building.
Ahmed Mohammed, one of the four-members of the investigation team at Dubai Police, said they had been surprised that the fire had started from the bottom of the building. “The witnesses, pictures and videos of the fire all suggested that it had started from the top and spread down,” he said.
“We were speculating that the fire must have started from one of the balconies, which is usual in similar accidents. But as we collected the data and analysed it we realised that this was not the case.”
They found no evidence the fire was caused by an electrical fault, or by any chemical substance. “We ruled out any criminal intention in this fire,” said Mr Mohammed.
Instead, he believed the cause was a cigarette thrown from a balcony above. Many tenants kept ashtrays and cigarettes on their balconies. “Surely, someone must have just thrown a cigarette butt,” he said. “There are many people who are negligent. They are just not aware of the repercussions.”
Once ignited, the fire quickly spread up the highly-flammable building cladding – which contained aluminium and fibreglass – to the roof.
From the roof, blazing chunks of cladding rained down on the balconies and cars below. The fire spread inside the building mainly through the balconies.
“The fire on the right, left and front side of the tower was caused by flammable pieces falling from above.
“However, there was evidence that on the back of the tower the fire spread from the bottom upwards on the back side of the tower.”
So far, about 30 flats and more than 60 cars have been reported damaged, although it is likely that not all those affected have yet reported their losses to the police.
It took just 10 minutes to reach the roof. “The fact that the fire started from the outside meant that smoke and heat detectors were not activated until much later.”
The team also looked at CCTV footage to compare the timing of the spread of flames with when the fire was reported, or felt, by residents.
A spokesman for Tamweel said the company had yet to receive a copy of the report, and so was unable to comment. “Our priority remains the wellbeing of owners and residents and we continue to strongly support the relief efforts of the Building’s Owners Association during this difficult period,” he added.
The reaction of those residents, most of whom are still living in hotels, was mixed. “I’m 100 per cent sure it started at the bottom and not the top,” said one, who did not want to be named. “When I left the building, the fire hadn’t reached the top or I would have seen it.”
But others said questions remained. “A cigarette does not burn down an entire building,” said Silvia, another resident.
“They need more safety measures if it really was a cigarette because then clearly something is wrong with the building and its design.
“This put a lot more questions into play, like how safe are other buildings that have the same design. It’s a miracle nobody died.”
Another resident remained convinced that the fire began on a higher floor. “It’s unbelievable that nothing happened to the lower floors, it definitely did not start on the ground level,” said N M.
“Anyway, whatever the cause, for us what’s done is done. It could have been anything but the physical and mental stress is what we have to deal with.
“As an adult I can handle it, but when I see my four-year-old daughter talking about the fire and not being able to forget it, that worries me. She thinks of it a lot and I can only hope it disappears from her mind.”
John Cox, a British resident, escaped the burning building down the stairwell that ran down the centre of the building along with hundreds of his neighbours. He did not see that side of the building burning, he said.
“It raises a lot of concerns because the alarm didn’t go off,” he said. He said most people believed it started between the first and the 20th floor of the 34-storey tower.
He, like others, was more concerned with the future. “We are all in limbo until December 20,” he said. The building’s insurance is paying for accommodation until that date, after which they will have to find somewhere else to live.
“No one is saying how long it will take to move back in the building,” he said. That meant they did not know for how long they would need a new place.
“There has be accountability somewhere. It has to be somebody’s problem. Is there recourse on the building that the materials were highly flammable, we don’t know. There are so many grey areas and as owners and tenants we’re counting down the next 16 days.”
Dubai police said that since the start of 2010, more than 178 fires have been started by “glowing” objects such as charcoal and cigarette butts.
And Mr Mohammed is sure of his findings. “I challenge any fire forensic expert in the world to come with different findings of the causes of these fires,” he said. “We are sure of our measures.”
* Additional reporting by Ramola Talwar and Eugene Harnan