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

By Louisa Loveluck in Dubai, Peter Foster

Hundreds of Dubai'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.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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