Residents homeless after Abu Dhabi building fire

Almost 30 families escaped with their lives while many were made homeless when fire spread through their Abu Dhabi apartment block.

ABU DHABI // Kicking a piece of blackened glass into a small pile of ash, Mohammed Abdul Rahman shifted his gaze from the ground to the sky.

Squinting into the sun, he looked at the place where he has lived for the past eight years. "That was our home," said the 59-year-old father of seven. "Now we have nothing, we lost everything." A soot-stained khandoura, shoes and his keffiyeh were his only remaining possessions. His wife, close to tears, pulled at her abaya to indicate the same. The couple, from Iran, are staying in a hotel with four of their children. Their three-bedroom apartment was on the second floor of the eight-storey building on Airport Road that fire swept through on Saturday. It broke out around 3.30pm after a suspected electrical fault in a textile shop on the ground floor and spread to 12 of 28 apartments, as well as 14 parked cars. Fourteen people were injured, with three requiring treatment at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Abu Dhabi Police said it is providing shelter for 28 families, a total of 132 individuals, who were affected by the blaze.

Mr Abdul Rahman, who owns a small supermarket in the nearby Karama district, was one of several residents who turned up yesterday to survey the wreckage. With no insurance and no extended family to stay with, he had no idea what to do next. "We have lost hundreds of thousands," he said. "All our possessions, money, gold jewellery, passport, mobile phone, clothes, furniture. Everything has gone." Soaad Nabhany, 53, and her 21-year-old daughter Eman had been taking an afternoon nap in their two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor. Mrs Nabhany said she woke up to the smell of smoke, alerted the other four members of her family and they escaped down the stairwell.

"We were very, very afraid, I had never seen a fire like that before. It was terrible. Also it is Ramadan, we were fasting, I was shaking all over my body." Although there was some smoke damage, none of their possessions was burned. Mr Abdul Rahman said some of the damage could have been avoided with a quicker response from the emergency services. "It took them 45 minutes to get here," he said. "Too long, much too long."

The watchman of the building, who did not want to give his name, also claimed it took more than half an hour for the fire engine to arrive. However, Captain Yasser al Qetairi, the acting director of media and public relations at Abu Dhabi Civil Defence, said they received the report of the fire at 3.31pm and they arrived five to 10 minutes later. The fire had spread so quickly because the building was old and lacking in safety measures, he said.

Mrs Nabhany also said there were no alarms fitted, no fire extinguishers and the lift was always broken. "It was an old building, we were not protected from fire," she said. Forensic investigators entered the building yesterday morning. Raghu Nandanan, who has been working as a photographer for the forensic evidence department for 15 years, said an initial assessment indicated the fire started on the ground floor because of an electrical wiring fault. However, it will be several days before a cause can be confirmed. The most damage was done to the ground floor and the mezzanine, which was reduced to a shell.

Lateef Mohiuddin, 52, the manager of Awafi Trading, the furniture and textile company that occupies a showroom taking several units over two floors, said the shop was empty when the fire broke out. "It is Ramadan so we shut at 1pm and open again at 5pm," he said. "When the fire started there was nobody here. I had a call around 4pm to say smoke was coming from the building and the windows were smashed. I ran here from Khalidiya but there was nothing we could do."

Mr Mohiuddin said they had lost more than Dh1 million worth of furniture and other items. He had no idea whether the company's insurance policy would cover the damage, or whether they would be able to open a store somewhere else. "It is confidential information to me, the insurance. All I know is that almost 20 bachelors are employed by us in a warehouse in Mina and they will need supporting. I also have a family and of course I am very upset. But what can we do? It is part of life. We are Muslim and we believe everything that happens, happens for a reason. It is in God's hands. We cannot say what we lost today will not come back in another way." * With additional reporting by Haneen Dajani