x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Desperate escape from inferno

Residents of the apartment block Saif Hashed al Qubaisi tell of their escape from the fire that gutted their building and left them homeless.

Musabbir Miah from Bangladesh sits with the belongings he and his flatmates could salvage from their building.
Musabbir Miah from Bangladesh sits with the belongings he and his flatmates could salvage from their building.

ABU DHABI // Zahid Khan cradled his burnt and bandaged left hand and described how he first saw the unconscious woman when he fought his way through the choking, black smoke of a fire that ripped through his apartment block.

"She was lying on the stairs. I don't know if she was dead. She wasn't moving," said the 27-year-old, still shaken by his experience. "I wanted to help her but there were so many people. I was coughing. I couldn't see. I wanted to, but - " his voice trailed off and he shook his head. As he wrestled his way through the throng of people gathered at the bottom of the stairway to escape the fire, he reached out and grabbed the handrail.

"It was very hot. I burnt my hand. It is very painful. At least I got out." The fate of the woman is not known. An air-conditioning technician from Pakistan, Mr Khan was one of dozens forced to flee their homes in the early hours of yesterday morning after a blaze swept through the Saif Hashed al Qubaisi building in the capital's Tourist Club area. Two people were killed and 32 were injured as panicking residents leapt from balconies and windows to escape the fire, which began soon after midnight.

Witnesses reported people screaming for help while others made makeshift ladders and ropes to escape to neighbouring buildings only metres away but separated by precarious drops. A number of those who were admitted to hospital yesterday had suffered broken bones after jumping several storeys to the ground. The occupants left behind apartments where they often lived toe-to-toe with others. The eight-storey apartment building was home to as many as 300 bachelors living in shared rooms of between five and 11 people each room costing around Dh2,500 (US$680) a month in rent. Workers ran the gamut from electricians to accountants to cleaners.

The building had not been cleaned or maintained in almost two years, residents said, adding that the lifts broke down almost a year and a half ago and had never been fixed. Paint was peeling and balconies were crumbling. The building was also home to several small shops and restaurants, including an abandoned butcher's shop that was thigh-deep in styrofoam cups and plastic bags. Its window panes were broken and graffiti reading "UAE" had been painted on the outer walls.

Residents of the first floor said an empty room that was used to store rubbish and abandoned furniture was also home to the electrical fuse box. Some residents said they suspected an electrical shortage caused the fire as they first noticed flames coming from that room. Abu Dhabi Police said the fire had started on the third floor, however, "I'm sleeping and then suddenly the lights went out," said Raja Afzal, 40, from Pakistan, who was serving as an impromptu representative of the tenants.

"Then I heard shouting," he said. "Many people were jumping and broke their legs. People were afraid, they saw no solution. "They were seeing smoke coming in all their rooms." Nisar Ali, 33, an electrical engineer from Islamabad who shared a room with Mr Khan, was awakened at about midnight by the smell of smoke. "I was sleeping. I woke up because of the smell and then I heard the screaming and shouting." Mr Ali said. "I went to the balcony and looked out and I could see police cars.

"People were shouting up to me to get out of the building but I didn't want to go through the smoke. "I called my friend who lives in the same building but lower down. He told me there was a lot of smoke and it was dangerous to come down the stairs. He said there were too many people so I stayed on the balcony and waited. "I told Zahid to stay but he wouldn't listen. If he had stayed he would not have hurt his hand. He is all right. He is just upset at what happened. He is thinking about the woman he saw. The police came and rescued me after about half an hour."

Several hundred onlookers gathered outside the building as the fire spread. Faisal Mohammed, 18, a public relations assistant born in Bangladesh who has lived in the UAE since he was three, said: "I saw people shouting from their windows for help. It was very frightening. "One man was climbing down a plastic drainpipe to get away. "He got out of a balcony on the fifth floor and started to climb down but then the pipe started to break.

"I thought he was going to fall but he managed to get to another balcony on the second floor before it broke. "There were other people on the sixth and seventh floor who were crossing into other buildings. They were using ladders and wooden planks to walk across." Asim Latif, 25, from Pakistan, was asleep in his first-floor flat and woke to see flames on the ceiling. "We went to wake up our friend in the other room," he said.

He escaped by the stairs. "Some people came out [through the balcony] by rope or by wire - Too many people, 40 or 50, were jumping." Those who took the stairs after he did, did not fare as well. "One person had fire on his hand, another by his mouth." Mr Afzal said he first feared a problem when he smelled smoke in his room. "There was no oxygen. The smoke was coming and everybody went to the balcony outside. People were just trying to save their lives. Money, passports, everything inside."

Those who escaped and those who were rescued returned to the building later yesterday, although entering their apartments was not an option. In fact, few options were available. Many huddled outside the scorched apartment block after spending a night in hospital or on the street. Nearby, a crane removed the two bodies from the eighth floor. Police told the residents they would not be able to collect their money, passports or documents for another four days. Many of them, still wearing their nightclothes, said they had nowhere to go. Others said their companies had arranged alternative accommodation

One group of Bangladeshi cleaners who had been discharged from hospital broke into an abandoned storefront to sleep. They had suffered minor injuries such as broken ankles and rope burns after attempting to jump from the second-storey flat where they slept 10 to a room. Two of them were sleeping on the store floor with bandaged feet. One was propped up on a plastic patio chair, his left leg in a white cast.

"I am all right, but not my friends," said Musharif Hussein, 20, gesturing towards his sleeping companions. "The first floor was on fire. We were on the second floor so we jumped." One flatmate had a bandaged left hand. He had grabbed a rope while trying to rappel from the second floor and had suffered a rope burn. They had managed to save a few possessions and had stowed them in bags and bin liners next to the shop.

Their company had leased two rooms for 20 men. "All 20 people jumped," Mr Hussein said. "Seven were in hospital. All are all right." The north side of the building remained cordoned off yesterday and the adjacent alley was strewn with clothes, bags and abandoned belongings. Foam mattresses and sheets littered the street. "Fire. It is a big problem," Mr Hussein said. @Email:chamilton@thenational.ae jgerson@thenational.ae