Dubai: Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Rahman Bel Shallan was on call on Saturday when The Torch tower fire broke out.
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.
Most of the firefighting was done internally, he explained, with teams outside the tower putting out any minor fires caused by the flying debris in nearby cars and the tram tracks. Teams were also evacuating nearby buildings.
Around a 100 firefighters took part in the operation.
“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”.
Lt Col Bel Shallan said the building’s fire system, which warned the residents as soon as the fire broke out, ensured that the majority of the people were evacuated.
A team headed by Lieutenant Omar Bel Jaflah headed to the 50th floor in the beach-facing setion and a team lead by Lieutenant Sultan Bin Haddah, who was the on-duty officer in Al Manara fire station on the day of the accident, headed to the floors facing Shaikh Zayed Road.
Lt Bin Haddah said he first headed to the 46th floor facing Shaikh Zayed Road, where there was no fire, and so they went up to the 47th, 48th and 49th floors.
“We started going into the apartments that were on fire, breaking doors when needed, and putting out the fires that were in the balconies. The sprinklers helped a lot in containing the fires.” Lt Bin Haddah said.
He said he was then called by Maj Al Mutawa to head down and they found the fire on the 30th floor, as there were burning balconies there.
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.”
He said that this is one of the biggest fires he has taken part in, but not the biggest. “The wind was very strong that day. At one point it pushed me two steps back although I had my heavy gear on.”
After their mission was done, they had to go all the way down using the stairs to get out of the building.
“That’s when I started to feel the exhaustion set in,” policeman Khalid Ali Al Beloushi said. “Throughout the operation I did not feel anything, it was like I was on auto-pilot, I was going up and down and checking every apartment, but when everything was done and it was time to come down it all caught up with me.”
Al Beloushi was handling the beach side of the building starting from the 46th floor and up.
“I have been on the force for almost a year now and was part of seven or eight fires in homes; this was my first experience being part of a team putting out a tower fire.” He added that this was very different due to the sheer size of the tower and the number of apartments one has to check which makes it a completely different experience.
It took the force two hours to bring the fire under control and put out all the flames, and one hour to cool the building.
Lt Col Bel Shallan said that after the fire was put out, there were orders to scan all the apartments from the ground floor to the roof to ensure there was no one left and nothing that would restart the fire. Then the building was handed over to Dubai Police to secure it and for the forensics team to start its investigation.
“The cause of the fire is still under investigation but from my experience, I think the cause was that one of the tenants left was irresponsible and left a heat source unattended. But it will be clear once the police forensics report is ready,” Lt Col Bel Shallan said.