x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Mourning two lives lost in the fire

Trapped by flames at their apartment block in the Tourist Club area, two men tried to escape but died from smoke inhalation.

Raja Muhammad Azeem Khan lived for his work, his wife and his daughters back in Pakistan. He had moved to Abu Dhabi more than 30 years ago to take a job with a shipping company that would support his family back home. He saw them about once a year and was planning a trip back to Lahore in March to see them again.

Instead, his devastated family is preparing for the arrival of his body. Mr Azeem was one of two men killed in a fire on Thursday that swept through an apartment block in the Tourist Club area, also injuring more than 30 people as many residents jumped out of the burning building. The block did not have sprinklers or smoke alarms and had been scheduled for demolition. Family members said yesterday that Mr Azeem had spoken to them on his mobile phone in the minutes before his death, saying he was trapped in his flat by the fire and was desperately trying to escape.

"I went to his office and met his managers and his colleagues. They were all shocked and in grief. Everyone was telling me he was a nice guy," said Mr Azeem's cousin, Mohammed Sohrab. Mr Azeem, 60, died of smoke inhalation after the blaze gutted the eight-storey block. Mr Sohrab said his family was waiting for the police to conclude their investigations before they could return Mr Azeem's body to his ancestral home in the Bhimba district of the Samahni Valley in Kashmir.

"I have contacted his brother-in-law [in Pakistan] and now we're waiting. Because of the holiday and the investigation, we are trying to proceed, but it's a very lengthy procedure," Mr Sohrab said. In the meantime, his family is "very upset. That is only natural. His daughters are waiting for his dead body, to see it. They have no brother." Mr Azeem's family is now based in Lahore and his four daughters are between 20 and 32 years old; two of them are married. Mr Azeem's wife is also his cousin and one of his family members, Arshad Mahmood, will be accompanying his body home.

"Everybody has to die. You have to die, I have to die," Mr Sohrab said. "God is responsible for everybody." Although residents of the scorched building have raised concerns about its overcrowding and lack of cleaning and maintenance, Mr Sohrab said he was not angry about his cousin's death. "His colleagues in his room said, 'Raja, come on, come on!' He said, 'I'm coming'." But Mr Azeem never made it out.

Mr Sohrab said his cousin was talking on his mobile phone with family members until the end. "He was saying, 'I'm trying, but I can't come out'," he said. Mr Azeem came to Abu Dhabi in 1974 to work for a shipping company and lived for several years in Dubai, according to his cousin. "His hobby is always to work, work work," he said, adding that Mr Azeem would often be reluctant to make plans for dinner for fear a ship would suddenly come in. "There is no other hobby. It was work, work work, that is all."

Mr Sohrab said Mr Azeem had last visited his family a year ago and had made plans to visit in March. "You have to compromise, what else can you do?" Mr Sohrab said. "If you take everything with anger, maybe it will hurt you, too." Staying in a room adjacent to Mr Azeem's on the eighth floor was the second blaze victim, whom colleagues yesterday named as Dood Khashen, 45, from Karachi. Mohammed Iqbal, 43, a carpenter from Lahore, said he had known Mr Khashen, who was single, for seven years and was his flatmate. He broke into tears as he described the victim's clothes, which were still hanging clean in a cupboard untouched by the fire.

"These are his coats. This is his T-shirt and ties. "These are his shoes for Christmas," Mr Iqbal said while unwrapping a pair of black dress shoes from a yellow carrier bag. Mr Khashen had bought new clothes for the new year. "I was calling him to say the building is on fire," Mr Iqbal said. Mr Khashen took a fizzy drink bottle filled with water and ice from the fridge on the balcony and covered himself, Mr Iqbal said. He died of smoke inhalation, according to police.

Mr Iqbal pointed to a spot on the floor next to one of four beds. "The dead body was on the other side," he said. "He was a good person," said Mr Iqbal. Pointing upwards, he added: "Go to Allah." jgerson@thenational.ae