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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Family of Emiratis who died in house fire tell of brave aunt who tried to wake others

Eight died in the fire, predominately from smoke inhalation

Mourners visit the Al Katheeri family at a tent to offer condolences. They enter as families. Victor Besa/The National 
Mourners visit the Al Katheeri family at a tent to offer condolences. They enter as families. Victor Besa/The National 

Hundreds travelled across the Gulf to give their condolences to a Baniyas family whose eight family members, including five children, perished in a house fire shortly after dawn on Tuesday.

Thursday marks the third and final day of prayers. Male and female mourners came by plane and by car, with many guests travelling more than 1,200km from Salalah and other cities in Dhofar, Oman’s southernmost region.

As a family came together in unity, stories of great courage and personal sacrifice emerged from the day of the fire.

Three nuclear families lived in the house. The matriarch, Fatima, her grown children Abdullah, Ali, and Khawla, two of their spouses, and nine grandchildren.

The deceased include Eman Al Katheeri and her daughter Fatima, age two. She is survived by her husband, Abdullah.

Ali and his wife Khiyar Al Katheeri lost two daughters, Thimna, age 21, and Aya, age seven. Khiyar is currently in the intensive care unit at a local hospital.

Khalwa, a science teacher, died with her three children, Fatima, who was four or five, Rames, aged two, and Salem, who was a year old.

Other siblings and their families lived in the surrounding houses and woke after dawn to see smoke billowing from the house on Tuesday. They watched as Khawla Salem, shouted from the second floor to wake her family before the smoke reached the third floor.

“When Khawla took care about the people, she forgot about herself,” said Maryam Al Baloushi, a close neighbour and family friend who grew up with the Al Katheeris.

“She just cared about everyone else.”

Khawla’s bravery and self-sacrifice was an attribute not just during the tragedy but in daily life. It was known that she would give her salary to underprivileged families in Baniyas to help them pay for education or healthcare.

Guests travel as far as 1,200km from Salalah to offer condolences to the Al Katheeri family. Victor Besa/ The National 
Guests travel as far as 1,200km from Salalah to offer condolences to the Al Katheeri family. Victor Besa/ The National 

“She was a person who just wanted to care for others,” said Ms Al Baloushi. “Khawla, everyone loves her. She was very kind, very polite. She was a beautiful person. She was the one who tries to help everyone.”

Among the mourners were staff from the three schools where she had worked as a science teacher and a library, Al Asayel, Al Muntaba and Sas Al Nakheel.

It is believed Khawla collapsed as she was phoning the police.

On Tuesday, when Ali Al Katheeri, who is about 50, left to the mosque for morning prayers, everything was fine. His brother Abdullah, who would be 37 this year, quickly got his mother Fatima to safety.

As the fire continued, neighbours and strangers on the street joined the family to help.

Witnesses said neighbours were among the first to help and questioned whether the response from Civil Defence could have been quicker. But speaking on state TV on Wednesday night, the head of Civil Defence, Brig Gen Mohammed Al Ketbi said teams arrived on site within 9 minutes of the fire being reported.

He said the fire was extinguished quickly and contained to the living room but the toxic smoke carried through the three-storey house, suffocating sleeping family members. Several victims succumbed after they were rescued from the burning building.

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Read more:

UAE mourns six children of Emirati family killed in Abu Dhabi blaze

Dubai authorities triple plans for fire detection systems following Fujairah tragedy

National Editorial: After tragedy in Fujairah, a community searches for answers

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Eyewitnesses applauded the courage of firefighters but said there appeared to be confusion as to the number of residents in the house.

Mourners at the men’s tent still bore marks on their arms from the fire. “A lot of people showed a lot of courage,” said Fatima Al Katheeri, 23, an engineering student, close relative and neighbour.

Close relatives Muneera, 31, and Jawahar, 21, prepared the bodies for burial on Tuesday after the fire. On Wednesday, she helped welcome guests, only weeping quietly when she remembered Khawla’s cries for help.

“Muneera is the strongest of all, she washed the bodies when nobody else had the strength to do this, and Jawahar did this with her,” said Ms Al Baloushi.

Following the tragedy, women filled the house of relative Asma Al Katheeri to give their condolences, filling bedrooms and majlises on ground floor.

On Wednesday evening, a local preacher from East Baniyas recited a sermon and led a majlis of more than 60 women in prayers for the deceased.

Dozens more women arrived as twilight descended.

“They are not just relatives by blood but relatives by heart,” Ms Al Baloushi said.