Residents told of a desperate 15-minute dash down smoked-filled stairwells as the 190-metre Abbco Tower burned around them.
Tenants paced down thousands of steps with alarms blaring shortly after a fire broke out at 9pm on Tuesday.
Many left behind hard-to-replace documents and ID and fear they have lost many of their possessions.
Fire crews managed to save the building near the Sharjah-Dubai border in three hours but it appeared to have suffered massive damage.
"There was smoke coming through the stairs but I had no choice, because I knew it was too dangerous to even think about taking the elevator," Kenneth Onyekwele, who lived on the 10th floor, told The National.
“It would have been quicker to get out but there was an elderly neighbour on the stairs who was having trouble breathing, so I had to assist her to go down the steps.”
Mr Onyekwele, 32, only moved in 10 days ago to cut costs after losing his job as an electrician at Global Village. The attraction closed in March due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Abbco Tower was home to many hard-working families, young couples and single expats.
Studio apartments were let out for as little as Dh17,000, rising to Dh30,000 to Dh40,000 for a two-bed.
“I’ve asked if I could get back into my apartment to get my Emirates ID but I have been told to wait,” he said.
“I don’t have anything except the phone in my hand and the clothes I am wearing. My wife is pregnant back home and relying on me to send money – how do I tell her this has happened to me?
“I need my Emirates ID to apply for work but it was in the apartment along with my passport and wallet.”
Filipino Von Segaya, 38, was staying with his sisters on the ninth floor after the hotel he worked at told him to take extended leave.
“It took us about 10 minutes to get down the stairs and out to safety,” he said.
“You could smell the smoke but you couldn’t see it - which was probably worse.
“People were shouting as well which only made it more intense. Thankfully there were no flames on the stairs as things were bad enough.”
Fire safety expert Andy Dean, head of facades at engineering firm WPS's Middle East office, said making sure a building’s safety plan was adhered to could be the difference between life and death.
"Making sure sprinklers are working, batteries in alarms are operating properly and ensuring fire alarms are not going off by mistake - so often that people just ignore them - might sound like low-hanging fruit but they really are crucial,” said Mr Dean.
“There have been evacuations of buildings that have been successful because these things were not ignored.”