Over 1,000 residents were forced to evacuate The Torch in Dubai, one of the world’s tallest residential buildings, when a major fire broke out at around 2.00am local time on Saturday 21 February 2015.
Miraculously, there were no fatalities or serious injuries reported, with just a small number of people treated for smoke inhalation and minor injuries at the scene. Firefighters from the Civil Defense were able to extinguish the blaze within a matter of hours, but over 12 fire engines were needed.
The fire is believed to have started on the 50th floor and quickly spread up one side of the 79-storey building, which stands at 1,105 ft (336.1m) and was designed by Khatib & Alami.
Strong winds exacerbated the situation, fanning flames across the façade and sending burning debris and cladding panels raining down onto the streets below. As a result, roads around The Torch had to be closed off for several hours.
Residents, who have been put into temporary accommodation in the neighbouring Princess Tower and the Gloria Hotel in Internet City, are slowly being allowed to return to their homes. However, so far this has only applied to those in the undamaged lower floors. No-one living above the 50th floor is permitted to enter, and it is not clear how long it will be before they are, pending investigations.
At present, the authorities are not treating the incident as suspicious, which inevitably raises questions about how the fire did begin. Some local press reports suggest that a stray cigarette butt may be a possible culprit.
The day after the fire, the Khaleej Times reported that an official from Select Group, construction contractor on The Torch, noted that sheesha and cigarettes on balconies were a ‘big, big problem’ in the country. The Select spokesman commented: “People here just don’t care about the safety of others. They don’t understand the consequences of a cigarette butt flung from a balcony.”
The same report cites the huge fire that engulfed the Tamweel Tower, also in Dubai, back in 2012. A Dubai Police investigation concluded that the fire was started by a cigarette, although once again, no serious casualties were reported.
The coming days, weeks or even months, will doubtless give us clearer answers as to what started the conflagration. But in the meantime questions remain. Why did the fire spread so fast – was it just down to unfavourably strong winds? And why did flaming debris start to cascade down so quickly, greatly increasing the risk of the fire spreading to neighbouring buildings and injury or death to those in the streets below?
Opinions from the experts
WAN’s Editor, Michael Hammond, interviewed Bruce Nicol from the High Performance Building team at Dow Corning – also formerly a façade consultant with Arup Façades one of this year’s WAN Awards façade judges – and Martin Clarke OBE, representing the World Concrete Forum, to get their views on what may have happened.
With regards to the rapid spread of the fire, Nicol ventures: “There’s probably a lot of speculation at the moment, but the likelihood - looking at the video as the fire’s raging up the façade – is there may be a problem with the cladding. Maybe a problem with the fire-stopping, let’s say.”
Clarke has this to add about the part played by high winds: “These high-rise fires can generate almost supersonic winds of their own. Even on calm days. There was a fire at an apartment block in Houston. It was a calm day, the firefighters got there and only just saved a boy trapped on a balcony, and you can see in the video how quickly the flames were being fanned by supersonic winds in the building.”
Take a listen to Shop Talk for the full discussion...
About The Torch:
•Designed by Dubai-based architect, Khatib & Alami
•Opened May 2011 in Dubai Marina
•Also known as The Marina Torch, Dubai Torch or Dubai Torch Tower
•Became the tallest residential building in the world in 2011
•Lost the record to its neighbour, the Princess Tower, Dubai, in 2012, which has also since been surpassed