Thursday, September 18, 2008


This is my final edition of the Fire report. The National, first published early this year and Abu Dhabi's answer to Gulf News, has done an excellent reporting job again. As an aside, I have to say I liked this paper the day it first came out for its style of writing long, in depth articles. It offers a good combination of info, analysis and commentary. Gulf News has the traditional format of rather brief articles, while longer ones seem to restate what was just mentioned, sometimes in identical words.

I didn't really expect The National to have been able to keep it up but but it has, this time with an excellent exposé on the cause of the fire and related commentary.

Interestingly, the article quotes the building manager as saying that the "penthouse" shacks on the rooftop were part of the original, approved blueprint. Perhaps so, but I'm sure they weren't intended as residences, nor needed for such a purpose, as in years past the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular was a mecca of spacious, cheap accommodation.

Apparently, many of the tenants are concerned that the building will be condemned, as it probably should be. It is, however, a sturdy stucture, and were this not the land of brand new everything, it would probably be just fine. What it really needs, besides a lower residency count and a lot of paint and facade work, is smoke alarms and the like, which could probably easily be retrofitted. It could turn out that the fire is just what it takes to get added improvements.

If they do decide to condemn the building I suppose some could end up on the streets--well, that doesn't happen here in the UAE. I wonder where the destitute really end up if not being forced to return to their country of origin. I'm sure, however, that some don't have that luxury--perhaps they can't afford the ticket home, or there really isn't a home to go back to. As for me, I'd be forced to face that world of stratospheric rental rates.

Without further ado, I turn this follow-up report to The National:

Oops, Planers Investigate Fire "Penthouse" is the story but it appears to be available only in the print edition. The Gulf News follow-up article will have to do in its place.
Abu Dhabi: At least 67 people, including 14 fire-fighters, were injured in Tuesday's blaze atop a building on Airport Road, officials told Gulf News.

Eleven among the injured were hospitalised, though no one suffered any serious injuries, according to the police.

The fire, that had erupted on the roof of the densely populated 16-storey building, trapped dozens of people on top floors. A wooden shack, built illegally on the roof, and two apartments on the 15th and 16th floors were gutted.

"It took over a hundred firemen more than two hours to put off the flame that began around 12.45 pm," said Colonel Othman Al Tamimi, Director of Emergency Management and Public Safety.

"The fire began from a makeshift home made illegally on the terrace," said Lt Colonel Mohammad Al Nuaimi, the head of the Quick Intervention Team of Abu Dhabi Police.

"Most of the people suffered from excessive smoke inhalation and not burns", he added.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Day 2, after a restful night in Dubai.

I went to work in the morning as usual. The same friend who had alerted me to the fire, told me this morning of news reports that those affected would be provided temporary accommodation, on the generosity of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed and the Red Crescent Society. Interesting, I thought—it had never occurred to me that the powers that be would intervene to that extent. Perhaps part of the spirit of Ramadan.

Late in the afternoon I arrived back at the scene of the tragedy. My colleagues at work had commented on my calmness, but as I approached my building I began to feel uneasy. So different from just 24 hours earlier, the large parking lot was once again full of parked cars, rather than all the big yellow emergency vehicles. To that extent things had already returned to normal.

I entered the building—only the rear entrance open—and made my way slowly up the stairway to my fifth floor flat. There were lights on in the corridors but other areas were still dark. Glass and other debris littered the stairwell along with patches of water.

Reaching my flat, I was surprised to find a shattered window open to the stairwell and the door bashed in. It was quite apparent that the rescue teams were responsible for the break-in, as other flats were similarly damaged. It was a bit unnerving to find all my worldly possessions left exposed to any who might happen by.

Images of Katrina came to mind. One’s life suddenly borne open, exposed to the will of some unforeseen calamity. Of course, I was lucky that I had not lost my possessions to fire, but the feeling was a bit unnerving nonetheless.

It was, however, crystal clear to me that this was Abu Dhabi and not New Orleans. The risk of being a victim of looting seemed extremely remote. People just don’t do that here. Sure, you hear and read about what seems to be increasing incidents of crime in the Emirates, but if we talk percentages, I would insist that the risks here are still extremely low.

The office where I work, for example, is left most of the day and into the late evening open to whoever might push the door, even when no one is inside. The neighborhood bank branches have no security personnel on duty. Lock your car doors—why bother? Leave a camera, a laptop, your shopping bags inside—no problem. I love that.

But many, including myself, try not to take it all for granted. I have a habit of locking my car door, keeping a double lock on my flat, and making sure not to leave valuables lying about. Still, the law of percentages is certainly on the side of safety in the UAE. I plan to get my door replaced tomorrow, but I won’t worry in the interim that my unlocked flat remains vacant for another night.

That brings me to the highlight of the day-after story. That offer of free accommodation has turned out to be quite genuine. I find myself tonight enjoying the comfort of a new 5-star hotel in Abu Dhabi. It appears that on a first-come first-serve basis, those who applied for assistance were lodged in a nearby red light district sort of hotel. As chance would have it, I was a latecomer and that hotel was full.

I was directed instead to the 121 Hotel. Never heard of it, I thought, as I drove around in circles looking for another red light special. As it turned out 121 was in fact One-to-One, a newly branded 5-star property modeled loosely, it would appear, on the very high-styled One & Only Resorts. I have to blush and say it is one of the nicest hotel properties that I have ever stayed in—with attractive villa style layout and 5-star amenities.

Thank you, Sheikh Hamdan. The spirit of Ramdan has left its imprint on me.

Addendum: Cause

A report in today's Gulf News rings true. They blame the outbreak of fire on the existence of illegal, makeshift structures--shacks--erected on the roof of the building. This should come as no surprise to any current UAE resident. Although this is a country without visible slums, housing costs start at US $1000 per month for a studio--and studio flats are rare to find. The market provides mainly 2-3 bedroom apartments and 4-5 bedroom villas. What is a single-resident earning $250 per month to do?

Where planners and developers have failed to respond to the true demographic conditions, would-be entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the void. They install plywood partitions in villas and flats or ply up to 20 beds (bunk-bed style) in rooms intended for use as single bedrooms and sitting rooms. Apparently, they build wooden shacks on the roof-tops of apartment blocks as well.

Even a bunk bed space costs $150/month upwards. A wage owner of $250/month is not going to want to spend 60% of that on a single bed. I would guess the makeshift shack on the top of my building provided accommodation in the range of $50/month. I didn't know it was there, and due to the fact that Abu Dhabi has rows of towers and apartment blocks all constructed to identical heights, residents of surrounding buildings are not likely to see these improvised solutions.

I had guessed all along, however, that there were a lot of partitioned rooms or bunk beds at the top of the building. The elevators went up to floor 15 and without fail, every trip the elevator made was to the top floor. So apparently there were larger numbers of people residing there.

The government here, really needs to address the housing problem, but not through rent control, as it is currently doing. It needs to provide dormitories for the hundreds of thousands of single (as in here in-country alone--married and not), low-wage workers.

Ironically, the so-called laborers are the ones to be envied by other low-paid workers now. Numbering a million or more, these who labor to construct the country's massive new infrastructure and construction builds are provided company housing--labor camps--for which the government in recent years has gradually forced companies to improve. It used to be the norm for these workers to be packed up to 20 in a room in rickety, port-a-cabin type structures. The average room population now is probably below 10, with some who were 16 to a room just a couple years ago now enjoying lodging shared with only 3 other co-workers. This is in contrast to low-paid service workers residing 8-20 in a room of strangers.

I can completely understand people resorting to makeshift shacks discretely poised on building roof-tops, although the hazards are apparent. My own building is also just old. There are no fire alarms, sprinklers or even fire hydrants. There are 12 flats to a floor which I would estimate have an average of 3 or 4 residents each. Rent-control, however, means that I stay there and pay the approximately $500/month charge for a studio flat, while at renewal time the landlord informed me that the rate for anyone who newly moved in was around $1500/month! This is a for an old, run-down, over-crowded building where bathrooms, for example, are open to the outside to allow the window or split ACs to vent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fire my building!

Helicopter Rescue in Abu Dhabi, The National

I haven't made a post in quite a while. Now I've got something to blog about. I reside in a crummy, 17-story apartment block in Abu Dhabi. Crummy because it's an old run-down building. In today's rent control environment, one basically has to stay put even if living conditions are less than optimal.

While at work today, 140 km away in Dubai, a friend calls and says, Hey, your building's on fire!

My building? I ask with a tone of surprise. No one around me in the office picks up on the conversation until I mention calmly that my building's on fire.

My friend reports helicopters circling the building, fire trucks all around, smoke pouring from the top, and he could even see flames. To my good fortune, I could ascertain that the fire was not near my floor, more than half a building below the fire.

More than two hours later I arrive on the scene. Fire trucks are still everywhere, a bit of white smoke rising from the top floor, but little visible sign of damage to the facade of the building. It wasn't that bad, I conclude. I gather from a few spectators that no one was hurt and that only the top floor burned. The helicopters? Apparently they were used to douse the fire, as water still seemed to be draining through the central elevator shaft out to the front and rear entrances of the building.

If there was any wild excitement I suppose it had faded, as most spectators--fewer than a hundred it seemed--milled about calmly. Some, for sure, were residents like myself. I recognized only a few, and the watchman. What was interesting was to see the mix of nationalities and cultures--Egyptians, Filipinos, Indians, Afghans... A few older Emirati men stood by and talked with police--perhaps the building owner.

Predictably the emergency personnel were mostly Arabic, non-English speaking. But there was a contingent of Europeans--rescue workers perhaps. At one point one of the non-English speaking officers was tasked with collecting the names, flat numbers and number of residents in each unit. One by one, we passed on our details. He spoke enough English to communicate what he wanted, although there was sometimes confusion about the numbers.

That was pretty much it. Less eventful than I might expect a my building on fire event to be. I am surprised at the number of emergency vehicles. Perhaps there had been no other such incidents this day.

After passing on my details I escaped to my car. Luckily I had my laptop inside, and where I park am able to pick up a stray signal to get online. This is a live report folks.

What next? Perhaps I head back to Dubai and find a hotel room. I've no idea when I'll be able to get back into my flat, but I doubt it will be today. Thankfully, no one was hurt. I guess tomorrow I should visit the insurance office and take out that policy to insure personal belongings--something which has long held a place on my to do list.

One final observation I can make is that as old as my building is, the fire predictably had not spread. I've seen lots of fires here--on the pages of the newspaper mostly--where flats in towers burn. They seldom seem to spread, although there have been some horrific fires recently at warehouses, buildings under construction and other sites. The fact that all tall towers and tower blocks here are built primarily with concrete (steel-reinforced, of course) means that the danger of massive building fires seems remote. I must also add that it is noteworthy that there were 4 helicopters--according to one spectator I spoke to--about 10 fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to attend the blaze. This indicates that the civil authorities, in Abu Dhabi at least, have their act together. Good on the UAE.


Although I don't normally post pics to this blog (I prefer to let the words tell the story) I make an exception this time with news accounts of my building's fire--apparently much more serious than I was told. There were injuries.

Gulf News photos

The National coverage

Saved from the Flames, The National article and video report.

The NationalGulf News
Abu Dhabi // A young girl and two adults were airlifted to safety by helicopter today in a dramatic rescue from the roof of a blazing 16-storey apartment block in the centre of the capital.

The fire is thought to have broken out at around 12.45pm in what appeared to be makeshift rooftop accommodation on the Fathima Supermarket building in Airport Road.

Thick smoke quickly engulfed the roof as the fire took hold in the 15th and 16th floors.

Firemen, hampered by parked cars and hundreds of passers-by who were watching the drama unfold, managed to evacuate the building.

Children wearing paper face masks to protect them from the dangerous fumes were led out to safety.

A reporter and photographer from The National who had climbed onto a neighbouring roof spotted a Filipino man and an Arab woman and her daughter trapped on top of the burning building. They immediately alerted the emergency services.

Within minutes, a fire engine had positioned itself below the blaze but its ladder was only able to reach the 13th floor – three metres short of the rooftop.

At this point an army and a police helicopter were dispatched.

On the roof the woman shouted in Arabic to the reporter: “Saedna (help us). There is fire outside my door and smoke is coming into my flat. I am too scared to go to the door.”

Four metres away, across a rooftop wall, the Filipino man, who had a white towel wrapped around his head to protect him from the smoke, yelled: “I was asleep and just woke up. I can feel the heat and can’t get close enough to the door to shout to the firemen.”

Minutes later the police helicopter carefully manoeuvred into place and a rescuer winched the young girl and then her mother to safety.

A larger helicopter from the UAE armed forces picked up the man. Its strong downdraught dislodged a satellite dish that fell to the ground.

Nour Omar, who lives on the 10th floor, said: “I was sleeping when I woke up and saw smoke outside my window. I ran to wake up my mother and sister and dialled 999 and was told to get out of the building as quickly as possible.”

While the cause of the blaze remains unknown, a woman resident, who asked not to be named, said she had heard it started in a faulty air conditioning unit in one of the houses built on the roof.

A man who gave his name as Nishab, who has worked in the supermarket on the building’s ground floor for four years, said it was an old structure. The makeshift rooftop dwellings were apparently jokingly referred to as “the penthouse” and one or two were occupied, he added.

It took firemen about an hour and a half to extinguish the blaze. No one was killed, although several residents and two firemen were treated at Sheikh Khalifa Hospital.

Several firemen were also treated at the scene suffering from exhaustion attributed to smoke inhalation and their day-long Ramadan fast.

Mohammed al Niami, head of Abu Dhabi’s Quick Intervention Team, a new rescue unit trained to tackle large-scale emergencies, said his first priority was to evacuate the top two floors of the building, which were engulfed in smoke and ash. “We didn’t have any problems fighting the fire because it was under control. Smoke was the main problem.”

He added that several firemen had collapsed. “It was in Ramadan and they were fasting and they needed water,” he said. “Some of them collapsed unconscious because they were fasting. It was a small problem – they were given food and water.”

The large-scale emergency required co-operation from several branches of the Abu Dhabi emergency services. Eight fire engines from five stations across the city attended the scene with a number of ambulances and two “bus” ambulances, provided by the Emergency and Public Safety Department, to treat light injuries.

“There was good co-operation between us and civil defence, the owner of the building and the owners of the helicopters,” said Mr Niami.

Jane, a resident in a neighbouring building who refused to give her last name, reported seeing emergency vehicles struggle with the chaotic parking outside apartment block. “I’m really concerned,” she said.

“Fire trucks and ambulances should be able to come through. In case of emergencies, how are people supposed to get there?”

* Essam al Ghalib, Matt Kwong, Matt Bradley and Daniel Bardsley contributed to this report.
Dozens injured in Abu Dhabi blaze
By Rayeesa Absal, Staff Reporter
Last updated: September 16, 2008, 16:29

Abu Dhabi: A fire broke out in a 16-storey building along the Airport Road on Tuesday, injuring dozens of people, including women and children, police said.

The fire, which erupted at around 1pm on the 15th and 16th floors, also destroyed two floors of the building, which is located between 13th and 15th streets.

Civil defence and rescue officials were still struggling to put out the fire when Gulf News contacted them at 5pm. "The exact number of those injured is still unavailable as all our officials are still at the scene," a spokesperson for the civil defence said.

Initially, many people, mostly children, were trapped in their apartments. "I saw smoke coming out of the window and rushed to see what happened. When I realised the building was on fire I took the stairs to go down at the earliest," said Mohammad Abbas, a resident.

According to a civil defence official at the scene, the cause of the fire is still unknown. However, a resident of the building said on condition of anonymity that a penthouse was set up illegally on the roof of the building. "The fire seems to have erupted on the roof," he said.

Frantic scenes

Rescue officials acted quickly to evacuate the building. Several children were airlifted in helicopters to safety. Dozens of frantic parents were in a state of panic, as hundreds of onlookers gathered around the area.

"Give me my child ... please bring my child," cried a mother before she fainted and fell to the floor. She was looking for her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for smoke inhalation in a mobile clinic. Officials pacified the woman, gave her some water and explained the situation.

Dr Bawsan Hallawi, a resident of the building who was treated for smoke inhalation, said, "I was given oxygen at the mobile clinic and am feeling better now."

Minutes later, members of the community police arrived at the scene to calm panicky residents. In between, as the helicopter came down close to the building, clouds of dust were blown at the onlookers and people rushed for shelter in nearby buildings.

Josephine, a teacher who resides in the next building, said the police prevented them from going up their building until around 3 pm, as there was risk of a power disconnection.

Parents of schoolchildren were seen making calls to locate their offspring.

"The bus is supposed to reach here at 1.30pm. I assume the police stopped them from reaching the area," said Aisha Sulaiman, a parent.