Dubai never planned fireworks like these to ring in the new year.
At 9:30 p.m., the 63-story Address Hotel in the United Arab Emirates’ city burst into flames. Within five minutes, the fire spread from one floor to about 40 floors, Ali Khedery, a former U.S. diplomat, told The Daily Beast from his apartment in Dubai.
Million-dollar views from the city’s skyscrapers caught waves of red, yellow, and orange biting into the night sky. Explosions, probably propane tanks, could be heard across the city. The Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world, looked small by comparison for once.
Khedery said it took more than an hour for firetrucks to arrive, because the back side of the Address is inaccessible to vehicle traffic. Dubai’s police chief said only 14 were injured.
“I know this place like the back of my hand,” he said. “It’s become my favorite haunt in Dubai.”
The fire spread quickly on the outside of the building, possibly due to cladding made of white paint, aluminum, and insulation—the slick patina that’s come to define Dubai architecture, which is also highly combustible in dry, desert air.
“These cladding panels contain a potentially dangerous mix of aluminum and polyurethane,” the website Gulf Business wrote last March, when another Dubai high-rise, the unfortunately named Torch tower, caught fire. “The flammable material is sandwiched between layers of aluminum, and when exposed to flame or even extreme heat, will ignite.”
In 2013, the United Arab Emirates changed its Fire and Life Safety Code to mandate fire-retardant cladding for all buildings taller than 50 feet. By then it was too late for hundreds of high-rise buildings, including the Address.
Despite the catastrophe, Dubai’s fireworks went off at midnight from nearly every building in the city.
When the blaze started, many residents of this luxury shopping and trade hub were halfway through celebrating the end of 2015, a year that has probably transformed the contemporary Middle East forever. Now they’re watching it expire with the appropriate macédoine of regional emotions: awe, fear, anxiety, and sadness.
2015 closes with several international cities on high alert, if not in paranoid states of lockdown, because of the ever-present threat of sacred terror. And there is a guilty sense, at least to judge from Emirati postings on social media, of relief. Perhaps this is only a fire, one caused by accident and not the kind of premeditated spectacle to which we have now grown accustomed.