A fire swept through an apartment building in an older neighborhood of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, killing at least 16 people and injuring another nine, authorities said Sunday.
The blaze Saturday in the Al Murar area of Dubai’s historic Deira neighborhood struck an apartment believed to have been shared by multiple individuals, a common practice for laborers who power the economy in this city-state known more for its towering skyscrapers. But the tight quarters, often subdivided by makeshift barriers of plywood, drywall or shower curtains, can become a major risk in fires.
A statement from Dubai Civil Defense issued by the city-state’s media office gave the death toll. Authorities did not answer questions from The Associated Press.
Naseer Vatanappally, a Dubai-based businessman who volunteers with the Indian Consulate on repatriation issues, told the AP that authorities had identified the dead as six Sudanese, four Indians, three Pakistanis, a Cameroonian, an Egyptian and a Jordanian. He said police were working to process paperwork to send the remains of the dead back to their homelands.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said online that he was “very sad” over the deaths of the three Pakistanis.
“I extend my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families over the tragedy (and) have directed Pakistan’s Mission in the UAE to extend support to the affected families,” Sharif said.
On Sunday, char marks could be seen on the five-story apartment building, home also to a grocery store, a smoke shop and other businesses on its ground floor. Yellow police crime scene tape cordoned off the building, which also still had a heavy police presence. Massive Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s owned by the long-haul carrier Emirates roared overhead as the neighborhood sits only 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Dubai International Airport along its flight path.
On several neighboring balconies, a wardrobe’s worth of clothes could be seen hanging — a common practice when closets are converted into living space for laborers sharing an apartment that was initially designed for a single family. That’s seen throughout Deira, which is located alongside the Dubai Creek and is also home to its gold and spice markets, a major tourist attraction in the city.
A man working nearby at the time of the blaze put the start of the fire at just after noon Saturday. He told the AP that there had been an explosion, like from a gas cylinder catching fire, followed by thick black smoke. That corresponded with videos posted to social media of the flames shooting out of the apartment as firetrucks arrived to the scene Saturday, with at least one person inside the building waving a white shirt from a balcony to signal rescuers.
The man said neighbors believed people were asleep inside at the time, something typical for the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan when the faithful abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
A Dubai police officer stopped the AP journalist from talking to the man before he gave his name and told the reporter to leave the area.
The Dubai Civil Defense statement described the fire as starting on the fourth floor. The char marks, however, could be seen on the fifth floor, where glass appeared to have been blown out by the blaze.
“Preliminary investigations showed that lack of compliance with building security and safety requirements caused the fire,” the statement said. “Relevant authorities are conducting a comprehensive investigation to provide a detailed report on the causes of the” fire.
The statement did not elaborate. The building’s management declined to answer any questions when reached by the AP, citing the ongoing police investigation. It wasn’t immediately clear who owned the building.
Dubai in recent years has faced a spate of high-rise fires, fueled by flammable siding material. However, other fires at warehouses and smaller structures can strike, particularly in the summer when temperatures top 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). On Saturday, Dubai saw a high of 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) with strong winds.
Illegal apartment partitioning has been a problem in Dubai for decades, worsened when the city-state sees real estate booms and economic growth like it now is experiencing. Authorities have launched crackdowns in the past, but landlords persist in offering partitioned apartments as workers from Africa, Asia and the Mideast try to save every penny to send back home.