Residents of overcrowded flats fear that their building is next

Safety standards and maintenance are both lacking, say tenants in a building not far from the apartment that went up in flames on Thursday

December 18, 2009/ Abu Dhabi /  Three men sleep on the floor of their small single room apartment in the Tourist Club area of  Abu Dhabi December 18, 2009. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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ABU DHABI // When his air conditioner exploded, the only thing Hani Hamad could think of - and indeed had available - to put out the fire was a towel. Mr Hamad, 26, from Jordan, lives with four friends in a small room in the Tourist Club area, not far from the apartment that went up in flames on Thursday. The flat in which they live has been divided by the landlord into three rooms to accommodate as many tenants as possible.

The five pay Dh4,500 (US$1,225) in total each month. Nothing is offered to them other than an old television set and a faulty air conditioner. Each sparsely furnished room offers few comforts aside from a bed. "This is pretty expensive for a room so it should at least have minimum safety facilities, just like any other new buildings," Mr Hamad said, pointing to the new buildings nearby. The five spent much time worrying that disaster would strike one day and the air conditioner would "heat up" and explode while turned on. In August, their fears were realised.

"We got into the habit of turning off the AC to make sure it lasts longer," Mr Hamad said. "We were all asleep and suddenly we heard a loud explosion. We woke up and we saw the AC cable on fire. Three of us ran away but I stayed, along with another, to put down the fire." If the incident had occurred while they were out, the whole building would have been ablaze, he said. There are no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire extinguishers in the building.

After three days, the landlord came and fixed the cable himself, without a technician. Mr Hamad said the electrical wires three months later were still exposed. That was now "the source of worries more than the fire". The electrical system in Mr Hamad's room is an example of what civil defence officials call a "main cause of fire". In September, the Ministry of Interior said over-reliance on air-conditioning systems, overloaded cables and faulty electrical systems were increasingly to blame for fires in the capital.

There were 240 fire accidents in Abu Dhabi in the first seven months this year. Of those, 64 were caused by electrical faults, 21 by fuel leaks, 13 by sources of heat such as matches or lighters, 10 by a slow source of heat such as a cigarette and six by mechanical failures. Another 126 occurred from cooking or gas explosions. "The situation of our room is the same as any other in the Tourist area. A flat gets divided into three separate spaces, and each space is rented for around Dh4,000," Mr Hamad said.

The majority of tenants in the old buildings in the area are bachelors, with many people in one apartment. Tourist Club residents spoke yesterday of living without the "slightest" safety standards in the buildings, especially the old ones. Some said they lived on the first floor, which would make it easier to jump out of the window in the event of a fire. Abu Mahmoud, 36, an Algerian safety expert, said new buildings could not be constructed without the civil defence ensuring that safety facilities were in place.

"Old buildings don't have that because they don't have to obtain any papers from the civil defence," Mr Mahmoud said. "Most of them should be demolished, but landlords would give them to investors who would re-rent them to low-income people. There are between 10 and 14 people living in such rooms. The large number of people living in these buildings alone is sufficient for the buildings to collapse.

"The key thing is good safety standards and regular maintenance. Both are lacking in these buildings, unfortunately." Mahmoud Hamza, 59, from Egypt, lives in the area and said most of the buildings were overcrowded and would be hard to evacuate during an incident. He told of a "terribly" crowded flat just opposite the building he lives in. It has three rooms and one salon. A woman lives there with her two daughters and two sisters in one of the rooms. She rented the other two rooms to 12 girls - six in each room with three bunk-beds.

She divided the salon into two parts and rented it to a dressmaker and a curtainmaker in the mornings. In the afternoon, it is rented to others. "Imagine if there is a fire there, with that many customers coming in and out of the flat," Mr Hamza said. "The shoes outside the flat is such a sight, almost the same number of shoes you find outside a mosque."