Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
February 24, 2015

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The Video Surveillance Report 2021

Dubai Inferno: 5 of History’s Worst Skyscraper Fires

That no one died in the world’s fifth highest residential building in Dubai – aptly named the Torch – over the weekend was remarkable and perhaps attests to the skills and conscientiousness of those tasked with its fire engineering.

It’s even more remarkable if the alarm wasn’t raised until an hour after the fire broke out, as one resident alleged.

A HR consultant from London living on the 26th floor told the Telegraph how he realised he’d been sleeping for four hours with a raging inferno above him.

“I woke up to find missed calls,” said Sharjeel Khawaja. “I went out into the corridor and the sprinklers were on and there was water everywhere.

“When I got outside everyone was gathered around watching what was happening. I must have been one of the last out.”

The fire, which started around 2am on the 51st floor of the of the 86-storey, 1,100ft tower, is thought to have been started by a cigarette or Shisha coal left on a balcony. It’s believed that the fire took hold in the air conditioning vents at the side of the building.

A lower part of the building was eventually set alight by falling burning material from the higher floors from which the blaze originated.

With the world’s urban population expected to surpass six billion by 2045 the pressure to build upwards results in ever more, ever taller residential buildings. Given the potential death toll and frequency of skyscraper fires, the stakes are high for getting both the architecture and fire-safety procedures right.

Here are five other examples of skyscraper fires throughout history, with the number of casualties varying according to the severity of the fire and the competence of evacuation and other parts of fire-safety strategy.

Wreckage from the B-25 bomber embedded in the Empire State Building

Wreckage from the B-25 bomber embedded in the Empire State Building

B-25 Empire State Building crash

If everyone knows all about 9/11 then not too many will be aware that a similar incident – albeit this time it was an accident – happened in 1945.

With World War Two nearly at an end a B-25 Mitchell bomber flying a routine personnel transport mission crashed into the Empire State Building in July 1945, killing three crewmen and 11 building occupants.

The aircraft crashed into the building’s north side, between the 78th and 80th floors, creating a 5.5m × 6.1m hole. One engine penetrated the South side too and landed on the roof of a nearby building, starting another fire.

Extinguished in just 40 minutes the fire remains 70 years later the only blaze at such a height to be brought under control.

Elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver  survived a plunge of 75 stories in an elevator – still the Guinness World Record  for longest survived elevator fall – whose cables had been weakened by the crash.

Then the world’s tallest building the Empire State Building retained its structural integrity and, remarkably, was open for business on many floors by the following Monday.

Photo: Peijin Chen under CC2.0

Photo: Peijin Chen under CC2.0

2010 Shanghai fire

In tragic contrast to the Dubai fire 58 people lost their lives and more than 70 were injured in the blaze that destroyed a 28-storey residential building in Shanghai in 2010.

Some residents clambered along scaffolding to escape as flames engulfed the building. Others reached street level via staircases or waited on the rooftop, although rescue attempts by three helicopters were hampered by thick smoke. Some 25 fire stations and more than 100 fire appliances extinguished the blaze five hours after it began.

Investigators blamed sparks from welding work undertaken by unlicensed welders that ignited scaffolding around the structure. The municipal government also pointed the finger of blame at illegal multi-layered subcontracting.

Some residents complained that fire-safety procedures were lax and had witnessed workers tossing used cigarettes into hallways. A lack of indoor fire sprinklers was also noted. Week-long safety inspections were done on the two other buildings of the apartment complex, both of which survived unharmed.

The fire may have been caused by the accidental ignition of polyurethane foam  insulation – commonly used in China without the addition of flame retardants – used on the building’s outer walls.

Many Chinese citizens and overseas news organisations accused the government of censoring media coverage of the tragedy.

The government did at least pass stricter regulations on the construction industry and increase the frequency of fire-safety inspections.

During the building’s renovation – and indeed that of the two neighbouring buildings – foam cladding on their exteriors was replaced by fire-resistant materials.

Photo: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco under CC3.0

Photo: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco under CC3.0

Windsor Tower (Madrid) fire 2005

Madrid’s 32-floor Windsor Tower was gutted in February 2005 and partially collapsed.

Known in Spain as Torre Windsor the office building was demolished in August of the same year and replaced by a new tower, Torre Titania.

The fire started around midnight on the 21st floor before quickly engulfing the building. The outermost, steel parts of the upper floors rapidly collapsed and firefighters needed almost 24 hours to extinguish the blaze.

Although it was Madrid’s worst-ever fire no fatalities were recorded, albeit seven firefighters were injured.

The blaze was initially blamed on an electrical fault, although evidence later emerged – including amateur videotapes showing two silhouetted figures inside the blazing building more than two hours after firefighters believed it to be evacuated and signs of forced entry into an underground garage – suggesting arson could have been the cause.

Beijing fireBeijing Television Cultural Centre fire

On 9 February 2009 fire erupted in the heart of Beijing during the culmination of Chinese New Year Celebrations.

The fire engulfed Beijing Television Cultural Centre, which was under construction – never to be opened. A nearby fireworks display authorised without the permission of local authorities by CCTV, China’s biggest state-controlled broadcast network, was blamed.

The building was built with considerably less steel than conventional skyscrapers and designed to withstand major earthquakes – but it couldn’t withstand stray fireworks from an elaborate pyrotechnic display. The tower was completely engulfed in flames within just 13 minutes.

Six hundred firefighters brought the blaze, which caused one fatality – a firefighter from smoke inhalation – and left seven injured (six of which were firefighters), under control after five hours.

The fire began on the building’s roof and, fed by high winds, spread rapidly to lower floors. Toxic fumes and a lack of working sprinklers hampered their efforts.

An amateur video showed how the fire started when a shell from the fireworks landed on the roof.

View from NASA satellite of New York during the 9/11 attacks

View from NASA satellite of New York during the 9/11 attacks

Twin Towers

It’s reasonable to surmise that no one reading this will be unaware of the collision between United Airlines Flight 175 and the World Trade Centre on 9 November 2001.

Fire-induced structural failure triggered the collapse of all three buildings in the World Trade Center.

The South Tower was the first to go, collapsing at 9:59 am after burning for 56 minutes in a fire caused by the impact and explosion of the plane’s fuel. The North Tower collapsed after burning for 102 minutes, the debris from which triggered fires in the 7 World Trade Center building (7 WTC). These fires burned for hours, compromising the building’s structural integrity, and 7 WTC collapsed at 5:21pm.

The attacks killed 2,996 people, dwarfing casualties in any other skyscraper fire, and caused at least $10bn worth of damage.

A total of 411 emergency workers lost their lives bravely battling to rescue people and fight fires. The New York City Fire Department alone lost 340 firefighters, a chaplain and two paramedics.

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  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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Ross
Ross
August 4, 2017 3:08 pm

11th September