Dubai probes cause of massive New Year's Eve hotel fire

Dubai (AFP) - Investigators in Dubai were working Friday to determine the cause of a spectacular fire that engulfed a 63-storey luxury hotel on New Year's Eve three hours before midnight.

The huge blaze at The Address Downtown hotel erupted around 9:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Thursday, sparking panic but no reports of serious injuries.

Authorities went ahead with a dazzling fireworks display at the nearby Burj Khalifa -- the world's tallest skyscraper -- despite the inferno, the latest in a series of fires in recent years to hit the buildings that make up Dubai's futuristic cityscape.

They said the fire is believed to have erupted from the outside of the building on its 20th floor before spreading along its whole facade. But the exact cause was not yet known.

Dubai government's media office issued a civil defence statement said that the process of cooling the hotel down was "ongoing" Friday afternoon.

"Security services are investigating the causes and circumstances of the fire," said the statement.

Witnesses described scenes of panic after the fire spread, with residents screaming and some fainting as they rushed to evacuate the building.

Still, authorities said only 16 people had suffered mostly minor injuries despite the presence of thousands in the area to watch the celebrations.

At least 14 people were slightly injured, one was moderately injured and one person suffered a heart attack during the evacuation, they said.

All victims have been discharged from hospital except for a pregnant women and an elderly man who were said to be "well" but were kept in "to ensure their safety," the civil defence said.

Firefighters spent the night trying to extinguish the blaze.

- 'Courageous' response -

Heavy black smoke still billowed from several floors of the hotel early on Friday, an AFP photographer said, as firefighters continued to douse the building with water.

Roads leading directly to the hotel were closed but otherwise Dubai city centre appeared normal, with passers-by stopping to take pictures of the building with their mobile phones.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan praised the "professional" civil defence response to the fire.

Many Twitter users also praised the response of fire and emergency services, pointing to the fact that there were no major injuries, though some questioned whether New Year's festivities should have gone ahead.

"Bizarre response of authorities in Dubai. Surely fireworks could have waited till tomorrow?" user Sumbal Naqi wrote.

Emirati state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash however defended the decision as "courageous" and "in favour of normal life against fear and pessimism."

"The fire will not leave its print on year 2016," he tweeted.

The government said evacuated guests were being offered alternative accommodation.

It published several videos on its Twitter feed of fireworks erupting around the iconic Burj Khalifa and said the New Year's celebration was a testimony to Dubai's "steadfast commitment to its major projects and initiatives".

- History of building blazes -

A newspaper photographer who was on a 48th floor to take pictures of the fireworks when the fire erupted told AFP he had spent a harrowing 30 minutes standing on a ledge outside the building, only metres from the raging blaze.

"One hour, then that's it, I'm dead," he thought as he stood on the ledge, before eventually being saved by rescue workers.

The Address Downtown hotel, opened in May 2008 and owned by Dubai property giant Emaar's hospitality group, is the 18th tallest building in the city and the 93rd highest in the world.

A growing tourist destination, Dubai has become famed in recent years for its distinctive skyline and ambitious building projects, but has suffered from a number of spectacular fires.

In November, a massive blaze engulfed three residential blocks in central Dubai and led to services on a metro line being suspended, although no one was hurt.

In February, a huge fire gutted one of the emirate's tallest buildings, destroying luxury flats in the Torch tower and triggering an evacuation of nearby blocks in the Dubai Marina neighbourhood.

In 2012, a massive blaze gutted the 34-storey Tamweel Tower in the nearby Jumeirah Lake Towers district. It was later revealed to have been caused by a cigarette butt thrown into a bin.

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