Dubai-based Filipino news photographer Dennis Borja Mallari thought he would not live to see 2016 as he stood at the edge of a 48th floor balcony of a five-star hotel in the cosmopolitan Middle Eastern city’s downtown area that caught fire on New Year’s Eve.
The 37-year-old Mallari was a staff photographer of The Manila Times before moving to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in 2005.
He was on assignment for his newspaper, the state-owned Al Bayan, to cover the grand fireworks display at the iconic Burj Khalifa–the world’s tallest skyscraper–which was across The Address Downtown hotel where Mallari had set up his gear.
“Ang ganda ng spot ko. Perfect. Full view ang Burj, walang obstruction [I got a perfect spot. A full, unobstructed view of Burj Khalifa],” Mallari told The Manila Times.
On the ground, thousands of locals, expatriate workers and tourists have camped out at the downtown area with their cameras ready. The fireworks display at the Burj Khalifa has been the center of New Year’s Eve revelry in the ultra-modern Islamic country since the over 160-floor tower was completed in 2009.
Mallari and fellow photographer Oliver Clarke, a Welshman from UK, have covered the fireworks display at the Burj for the last six years. Both used to work for the English-language daily newspaper Gulf News.
“Dubai TV has also set up a camera in the balcony, but their cameramen were not yet there. It was only me and Olie [Clarke] who were there,” Mallari said.
The balcony on the 48th floor is not accessible to hotel guests, Mallari told The Times.
“Doon dumadaan yung maintenance para maglinis ng bintana [Maintenance workers pass through the balcony to clean windows],” he added.
Mallari said they were doing test shots when Clarke alerted him of the fire.
“Sinigawan niya ako na may sunog tapos tumakbo na siya sa exit. Hindi namin nakita yung apoy kasi naka-focus kami sa Burj at sa Dubai Mall area. Yung sunog nasa kaliwang side [Clarke shouted that there was a fire before he rushed to the exit. We didn’t notice the fire because our attention was focused at the Burj and the Dubai Mall area. The fire was on the left side of the balcony],” he added.
Mallari said he was still taking pictures but when he decided to move out, thick smoke enveloped the path leading to the stairwell.
An AFP photographer at the scene said, “It began in the middle of the hotel, then went down like lightning before shooting up again.”
“People in the vicinity began to run in panic to get away from the area,” the photographer added.
The Dubai Municipality’s official Twitter account said the fire erupted on the 20th floor and affected only the outer facade of the building.
“I hesitated from running to the exit because of the smoke. I was afraid I’d get knocked out by the smoke, lose my phone signal or will encounter a fire along the way, so I started texting photographer-friends who were on the ground and asked them to tell the Civil Defense people that I’m trapped at the 48th floor,” Mallari said.
Afraid that he would die from suffocation, and unable to see how he could escape, he decided there was only one thing for him to do: Tie himself up with a rope on a window-cleaning platform and hang off the balcony.
Mallari rolled out some 100 feet of a heavy-duty cable from a crane used by workers to clean the tower’s windows, attached it to his belt and photographing equipment and stepped off the edge.
A video Mallari himself recorded and posted on his Facebook account and YouTube channel shows the fire was less than 10 meters away from him at that point.
“One hour, then that’s it, I’m dead,” he thought as he stood on the tiny sill.
A Civil Defense phone dispatcher who managed to reach Mallari by phone kept him calm as he waited to be rescued.
“I was telling them I hoped to survive and see my wife,” he said.
More than half an hour later, he heard rescue workers approaching his floor.
“When I saw lights and heard the sounds of footsteps at the floor I was in, I started tapping on the aluminum to get their attention,” Mallari said.
“I think I was the only person left stuck that long,” he said, describing how he was led out through the smoke-filled corridors of the five-star hotel.
Dubai’s police chief said all the residents had been evacuated.
The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Mallari, who was still shaken by the episode 12 hours after the incident, said his priority at the time was to produce great images of the fireworks display and somewhat disregarded his own safety.
”Kapag panahon mo na, panahon mo na. Hindi ko pa siguro panahon. Kalmado pa ako noong una kasi litrato ang iniisip ko, hindi yung sunog [If it’s your time to go, you’re really going. It’s not yet my time. I was still initially calm because all I was thinking about were my pictures],” he said.