Dubai hotel fire: High-rise towers are Emirates’ killers in waiting

January 2, 2016 5:22 pm

 
Hundreds of ’s tallest buildings are infernos waiting to happen,
a leading fire safety expert has warned, after a spectacular New Year’s
Eve skyscraper blaze raised concerns about the safety of buildings
throughout the Emirates.
Flames engulfed the exterior of the
luxury 63-storey hotel The Address within seconds, tearing up the
outside of the building “like paper”, according to onlookers and causing
a stampede of New Years revellers.

The Address Downtown is one of the most upscale hotels in Dubai. Photo / AP
The Address Downtown is one of the most upscale hotels in Dubai. Photo / AP
The fire – the third to hit a Dubai skyscraper since 2012 –
has renewed fears about the use of highly combustible materials on
hundreds of skyscrapers throughout the UAE.
The cause of the fire remains unknown.

“No one has died yet, but there will be fatalities sooner or
later,” said Phil Barry, a fire safety consultant with Gloucester-based
CWB Fire Safety who has worked extensively in Qatar and the UAE.
Incredibly no one was killed in the incident at The Address, which lit up the Dubai skyline three hours before midnight.
Dubai
authorities last night confirmed that 16 people had suffered mostly
minor injuries, with only two victims, including a pregnant woman,
remaining in hospital overnight for precautionary observations.
At
the heart of safety concerns is the use of polyurethane and aluminium
composite cladding on buildings throughout the height of the emirate’s
building boom. The material was only outlawed by new regulations in
2013.
The same phenomenon was observed when the 86-storey
skyscraper The Torch went up in flames in February 2015, just three
years after a near-identical blaze at the Tamweel Tower located in the
Jumeirah Lakes Towers complex in November 2012.
The National
newspaper reported in March 2015 that “inflammable cladding materials,
comprising plastic or polyurethane fillings” were also blamed for
spreading fires at both the Al Baker Tower 4 and the Al Tayer Tower in
Sharjah in 2012.
Mr Barry, who served 30 years as a UK
firefighter before becoming a senior lecturer at the national fire
service college in Gloucestershire, estimates that some 70 per cent of
Dubai’s high-rise buildings could be clad in the flammable materials.
He
added that it is nearly impossible for the estimated one million
Britons who visit Dubai and other UAE destinations to tell at a glance
if their hotel or accommodation block is clad in inflammable material.

The blaze ripped through the skyscraper just ahead of Dubai's fireworks display. Photo / Getty Images
The blaze ripped through the skyscraper just ahead of Dubai’s fireworks display. Photo / Getty Images
An employee at a shop at the base of the tower who asked
not to be named described the moment the fire took hold of The Address,
which opened in May 2008 and is the 18th-tallest building in the city
and 93rd-highest in the world.
“The flames raced up more quickly than anyone can imagine. It was horrible. Horrible to watch,” he said.
“We thought there must be so many people in there, but then the stampede began. It is a miracle no one was killed.”
The
cost of retro-fitting buildings with exterior sprinklers or spraying
them with fire-retardant materials is considered to be prohibitively
expensive and likely to be the subject of time-consuming litigation
between developers and owners over who should foot the bill.
Dubai
government’s media office issued a civil defence statement saying that
security services were “investigating the cause and circumstances of the
fire” at The Address but passed no further comment.

Firefighters spray water on the still burning Address Downtown. Photo / AP
Firefighters spray water on the still burning Address Downtown. Photo / AP
With few public records available, it is unclear how many
Britons remain at serious risk of another every time they step into
hotels and office blocks in UAE that use inflammable materials.
The
tour operators’ association, Abta, told The Daily Telegraph it would
not change its advice to operators unless the Foreign Office amended its
own guidelines to British travellers, which remained unchanged last
night.
An FCO spokesman said the UK kept travel advice under
constant review, but that “any change would need to be as a result of a
formal inquiry”.
Survivors of The Address inferno yesterday
relived their lucky escapes and spoke of the terror of realising that
the hotel and residential complex where a one-bedroom flat can cost
pounds 50,000 a year in rent, was going up in smoke.

Smoke was still billowing from the Address Downtown on New Year's Day. Photo / AP
Smoke was still billowing from the Address Downtown on New Year’s Day. Photo / AP
Anita Williams, an Irish jazz singer, was performing with
her band in the luxury hotel’s pool area when she first glimpsed the
flames, but said within a minute it was impossible to exit through the
hotel’s main entrance.
“It was the fastest thing I have ever seen
in my life,” she said. “It was like a towering inferno,” she told The
Telegraph. “We were screaming, we were terrified, we dropped everything –
we were running for our lives.”
An unnamed photographer clung to
a window-cleaner’s rope as he teetered on the edge of a hotel balcony
from where he had planned to photograph the midnight fireworks display.
After phoning the emergency services, he waited for almost half an hour to be rescued. “The rope was my saviour,” he said.

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