The PJ Tatler

How Dubai Fire Didn't Turn Into a 'Towering Inferno' Disaster

If there’s a miracle that happened in the recent news cycle, it’s definitely the fact that there were no casualties in the high-rise fire in Dubai.

The fire began on the 51st floor of the residential Torch Tower in the Marina district of the UAE’s cosmopolitan hub at about 2 a.m. Saturday, when many people were still out enjoying a night on the town. However, the 1,105-foot-high tower boasts a consistent 95 percent occupancy rate.

To complicate matters, a sandstorm was viciously kicking up the flames, spreading the fire to a lower floor, making anyone watching the video fear a “Towering Inferno” scenario. The fire was even visible that night on the city’s live skyline webcam.

So how in the world did everything turn out OK? Gulf News said about 100 firefighters took part in clearing the building and extinguishing the flames.

Lt Col Bel Shallan, Director of the Directorate of Civil Defence in Jebel Ali, immediately headed for the scene of the fire, where he joined his colleagues who were already following orders from Maj Ali Al Mutawa, Director of Operations at Dubai Civil Defence and the commander in charge of this fire-fighting operation.

“Maj Al Mutawa assigned me the responsibility of leading the teams combating the fire from inside the building. We gathered in a safe area inside the building, and then I divided the teams into two — one to combat the fire that was raging on the side of the building facing the sea and the other facing Shaikh Zayed Road,” Lt Col Bel Shallan said.

Dressed in their firefighting gear, which weighs between 5-6kgs, the teams used the emergency elevators to head to their assigned locations. Some started on the 29th floor in the section facing Shaikh Zayed Road and some on the 46th, while others headed to the beach-facing section, starting with the 50th floor and moving up.

The teams would check apartments for people and put out any fires they found in their way.

“Although the fire started on the 51st floor on the beach-facing part of the tower, the strong winds that day caused burning debris to fly off and start a fire on the other side of the building facing Shaikh Zayed Road,” he said.

…“The fire was in the balconies and was moving into the apartments, but thanks to the building’s efficient fire system – which was working at a 100 per cent — the fire did not spread into the apartments, as once it did, the sprinklers would put it out,” he said.

The system, he said, helped cut down the efforts needed to put out the fire “by around 70 per cent. If it weren’t for the system, this fire would have been a disaster”.

Evacuation wasn’t easy for all:

As they moved from floor to floor, they found a teenager and two older people going down the stairs somewhere around the 46th floor, so he took them with him down the emergency elevator to ensure their safety. “But on our way down, the elevator shut down on the 35th floor because the water had reached it, so we escorted them to safety through the stairs.”

“By that point all the elevators had shut down, and we had to go up and down the building using the stairs,” First Sergeant Saif Mohammad Al Gafli, from the Marina fire station, said.

Sergeant Al Gafli, who has been in the force for 11 years, said that their daily physical training enabled them to be able to do so. “We were able to use the lift between the 30-35th floors, and when it stopped we had to go up 35-47 floors on foot, moving from apartment to apartment, putting out fires and ensuring no one was there.”

Fire officials are still probing the cause of the blaze but think it will come down to a tenant leaving a heat source unattended, perhaps someone smoking on a balcony — perhaps a lesson against smoking in sandstorms.

Environmentalists said the fire took off as it did because Dubai doesn’t follow green building practices with insulation against the desert heat.

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