In the five years since a blaze tore through the skyscrapers that was their home, the endless frustration felt by tenants and home-owners from lost belongings to bureaucratic quibbles finally came to an end on Thursday when, with boxes in hand and removal men in tow, they were finally able to step through the threshold to their homes once again.
With maintenance work and repainting complete, owners began transferring new furniture and belongings from the rented apartments they have lived in since 2012.
Hoping to start a fresh chapter with new memories, relief was the overwhelming feeling expressed by residents, many of whom will be moving back in with new additions to their family.
Thursday will be the first day back in their apartment for the Iskandarani family who will be returning with a two-year-old daughter.
“We have finished all the formalities with our rented apartment and now we move back to our own home,” said Mazen Iskandarani, one of the first residents of the tower when it opened in 2009.
“Five years is a long time; it should have been quicker but that is behind us. It’s time to focus on moving ahead. We are basically very happy. New memories will begin for us.”
For many the relief was mixed with frustration due to the lengthy process taken for approvals and replacement of the tower’s aluminium flammable cladding which had a thermo-plastic core that fuelled the blaze on November 18, 2012.
Residents recalled watching the fire - which left 160 families homeless - sweep up the 34-storey building to the roof and damage water tanks, fresh air units and make the building unliveable.
Expenses for two and three bedroom owners have ranged from Dh80,000 to more than Dh100,000 in maintenance charges and Dh16,000 for chiller fees. These were coupled with mortgage payments for Tamweel homes and rent on apartments they had to move into.
Residents paid reduced air conditioning and community service fees up until last year and have appealed to authorities to extend the 50 per cent cut for 2016-17 since the flats were yet unoccupied.
“Frankly we have mixed feelings because so much has changed in our situation. When we first moved into a new building it was with different emotions,” said Dr Saqib Sheikh whose teenage children are happy to their own space back.
One of his two apartments were affected by the fire and the family will return in a few weeks after painting and carpentry work is completed.
“After living in small apartments in uncertain conditions, the children are happy to have their own bedrooms. But Tamweel was a test case that was handled badly because none of us knew our rights.”
The repair of cladding on the tower is often cited in safety forums since it was the first of several high rise fires that resulted in a ban on non-fire rated aluminium cladding on buildings constructed after 2012.
Even after the building was handed over to the owners’ association, vital fire safety equipment required repair over the past two months, said Masoud Nayebi, head of the board.
“Firefighting equipment was not operational, fire pumps were not working, elevators needed repair and we had to make sure that we didn’t let anyone in unless it was totally safe. It has been a struggle of so many years so there is naturally disappointment that it has taken so long. Why should fire repairs take five years? It was not easy for owners to deal with so much. I’m really tired and just want to go back now.”
So far about 18 families have returned with many like Mr Nayebi waiting for existing tenancy contracts to end.
Others will not be moving back.
“It was very difficult for my kids who were just two and six years old when my wife and I ran down with them when the alarms went off. After that, every fire alarm scared them, it was a terrible experience. We watched as the fire kept moving up until it reached the roof. We still thought we would be back after a few months, then a year. We have finally decided not to move back,” said an owner, who chose not to be identified, and plans to rent his flat out.
“Having to pay chiller (air conditioning) costs when it was not occupied is just not ethical. Maintenance costs are justified because systems need to be in good condition. We have all suffered huge losses. Anyone will feel frustrated and sad. There are too many memories so it is difficult mentally to move back to the same place.”
The building was deemed uninhabitable after the blaze that police investigations blamed on a discarded cigarette that set alight waste material.
Delays mounted due to lack of clarity about whether the owners’ association or insurance company had the authority to approve repair contracts and a host of clearances needed from civil defence and the municipality. The reconstruction also had to satisfy tighter rules as part of the updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code with old aluminium composite panels removed.