11 sleeping workers die in 1am factory fire

Police have arrested the building's owner and managers after a Dubai perfume plant that also housed labourers burns to the ground.

Dubai, 11th August 2010.  The aftermath of yesterday's fire at Afnan Perfumes Factory LLC, in Al Qouz Industrial Area 4.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)

DUBAI // Eleven workers sleeping in a perfume factory were killed when the building burnt to the ground. The fire at Afnan Perfumes in Al Quoz industrial area in Dubai broke out just before one o'clock on Tuesday morning. Firefighters immediately began rescue operations and quickly had the blaze under control, but were unable to save the workers.

The Emirati owner of the company, his Indian partner and the Indian manager of the company were arrested. A police source said later that the owner had been released on bail. The three have been referred to public prosecutors for breaking safety and health regulations, causing the accidental deaths. "Their act of housing workers in the warehouse has resulted in the deaths of 11 people and this cannot be ignored," said Major Gen Khamis Mattar al Mazeina, who heads the Dubai Police forensic department and is acting police chief.

The investigation into the blaze was under way and could take as long as two weeks, he added. Initial reports suggested that the victims had suffocated. Dubai Municipality inspectors were also at the scene gathering information on the fire and on allegations about the workers being housed in the warehouse against the law. "Our officers were at the spot but it is too early to say what was the reason for this. However, there were some clear signs of illegal housing," said Redha Salman, the municipality's head of public health and safety. "We saw a gas cylinder and a cooker there but it was intact. Obviously there were people in the factory that night but we have to investigate what they were doing there."

Eyewitnesses described huge plumes of smoke coming from the warehouse when the fire broke out. A security guard called the police and rescue services arrived within minutes. "No one knew there were people inside the factory," said a Pakistani man who runs a refrigeration business next to the factory. "The alarm in my office was activated by the fire, which is when we rushed to the office. By the time we got here the fire was already under control."

Those who died in the blaze included at least three Indians as well as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, company officials said. The names of all the victims were not made available. "The police told me that all the bodies are burnt beyond recognition, which is causing a lot of problems," said a friend of one of the victims from Kerala in south-west India. Officials contacted him after the body was identified, he said.

"He had come to Dubai only three months ago and his family is in India," the friend said. Afnan Perfumes deals in a range of high-quality scents including concentrated perfume oils and sprays, incense (bukhur) and occidental perfumes, its website says. Yesterday its gates were shut and police had cordoned off the area. A fire in a perfume factory can be as dangerous as one in a petrol station because of the chemicals stored on site, a civil defence spokesman said. "Gases are the worst thing in a fire as the human body can resist them for a maximum of only one minute before losing control completely," he said. Dubai Municipality launched a campaign in 2007 against companies using warehouses as worker accommodation. Civil defence officials regularly inspect such facilities and violators are issued fines of up to Dh50,000. More than 300 fines and warnings were issued by the civil defence in the first half of this year to warehouses and companies found violating fire, health and safety regulations. "The main challenge in finding out about workers sleeping in warehouse is that many times they sleep on mattresses during the night and remove them during the day, so we are not able to catch them," said Col Ahmad al Sayegh, the civil defence assistant director general.