x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sharjah fire survivors face up to the ruins

Tenants of an apartment block destroyed by fire gathered, waiting to re-enter the building and collect what remained of their belongings.

Venu Prabhakaran attempts to get permission from police to enter his flat. Tuesday's fire left hundreds homeless, and residents - many subsisting on charity - have waited three days to collect their effects.
Venu Prabhakaran attempts to get permission from police to enter his flat. Tuesday's fire left hundreds homeless, and residents - many subsisting on charity - have waited three days to collect their effects.

SHARJAH // Tenants of an apartment block destroyed by fire gathered yesterday, waiting to re-enter the building and collect what remained of their belongings. Tuesday's blaze in Al Kuwait tower took firemen more than five hours to extinguish. Six people were injured, one of them seriously, and the damage was extensive.

A crowd at least 100-strong had amassed outside the building by around 1pm yesterday, waiting their turn to enter one by one. Some had stood in the heat since the early morning as the apparently random process of picking the next to enter moved slowly forward. "We have been here since 8am but have not had a chance to see our flat," said Suresh Joe, a tenant of the gutted structure. "I hate the system they are using. One person goes and stays for 30 minutes and then they pick another one. Can't they allow all of us to go at once?"

That approach was impossible due to concerns over the safety of the building, which was still cooling off, and the valuables that may remain inside it. Safety, and the protection of property, were paramount, said Lt Mohammed Ali of Sharjah Police, who was leading the operation. "Some people have money, others have gold and other valuables," he said. "If you allow all the people to just come in, many things will go missing," he said. "We are allowing one person at a go. Two police officers escort the tenant to ensure he doesn't tamper with other people's belongings."

The building would be open to all residents in two days, said Col Waheed al Serkal, the Sharjah Civil Defence director. But the process of gaining entry lacked any organisation, many complained. Selection for entry was seemingly dependent on the whim of police, said Ali Salim al Hendi, a resident who had been waiting since morning. "I am thinking of asking my wife to come down and try pleading for a chance, as women are given first consideration," he said.

That was not the case for Estelita del Mundo, a Filipina who had been waiting for more than five hours. "Some women have had a chance to come and go inside immediately, but not all of us," she said. Mrs Mundo, who has a six-month-old baby, said she was looking for someone who could tell her the Arabic word for 'baby', to use when asking the police to enter. Many who gained admission may have wished they had not. Roy Jarapuyod, a Filipino, was unable to find any evidence of his two-bedroom apartment on the third floor.

"I need to hatch a plan to survive and start a new life, with new clothing, new furniture and a new apartment," he said. "I will start by sending my family back to Manila next week if they get travel documents, and start afresh." Mr Jarapuyod was also keen to hear of possible insurance compensation, but was unable to access the necessary information. The same was true of Mr Joe who, from the street, could see only a hole in the wall where his fifth-floor apartment once stood, and feared nothing remained of it.

He also feared the free hotel accommodation provided by the Red Crescent was about to end. "They told us that today was the last day, and anyone who wished to stay longer had to start paying," he said. Salah Salman, the public relations director of the Red Crescent's Sharjah branch, said many of the victims were now in a position to look after themselves, though he pledged the group would still assist those in need.

"Whoever approaches us and claims he still needs our support, we are willing to help," he said. ykakande@thenational.ae