Nearly tower of death

2010-01-12 00:00

I SUPPOSE there have been occasions in my life when I have come close to dying, but last week was the first time I thought it was really about to happen. “We are going to die here tonight,” I found myself shouting to a friend.

I hadn’t planned to go to the opening of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai (now renamed the Burj Khalifa in honour of the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan), but as I bumped into colleagues during the day they were all excited at this historical opportunity on our doorstep. However, I had resigned myself to an evening at home catching up on correspondence when I got a text message from my friend Jean saying she and Sofie were about to go by metro to the Burj. I dropped everything and ran down to meet them.

We were so pleased that we had gone to the opening — the fireworks were truly spectacular — and as soon as it was over we started walking back to the metro. The crowd was relaxed, people were still standing around socialising. We got to the metro entrance and were directed to a side door. There was a crowd pushing and shoving to get to the train, and we joined the queue. We were about 30 metres from the double glass door going into the metro station. Men guarding the doors were only letting so many people in at a time as, unbeknown to us, there was already dangerous overcrowding on the platforms and in the trains.

The crowd behind us was rapidly building up and then a whole tidal wave of people who saw a gap to the side of us came past and attempted to force their way through the doors. Another wave went around the back and suddenly we were caught in this congested mass of people unable to move in any direction.

Realising the danger, we tried to get out but the surrounding crowd was pushing and we were being squashed tighter and tighter together. There was absolutely no way anyone could move. We started shouting: “Don’t push”, “Keep calm”, but it was no use. We were being squeezed, breathing became difficult, children couldn’t get oxygen and people started panicking. A woman screamed out: “I’m asthmatic, I’m asthmatic.” Others were shouting and a boy in front of us started having an epileptic fit. That was when I said: “We are going to die here tonight.”

We started shouting for people with babies and children to be allowed through. Babies were passed over heads to the front of the crowd. It was becoming difficult to stay standing. A man, who appeared out of nowhere, had a pram he was trying to fold up but as he leaned forward he was pushed and the pram wedged into my leg. I screamed, but there was nothing he could do.

Then the guards opened the door to allow the next batch of people through. It wasn’t a case of walking, we were simply propelled by the crowd. Jean, Sofie and I held on to each other so we wouldn’t fall. The pram got caught in the tangle of legs and swung round in front of my right leg. I was in agony as my leg was pulled up into the metal bars while my other leg was pulling me left with the force of the crowd. The doorway was so close and yet so far. People were shouting and crying, as we burst through. We ran into a safe corner and huddled there until we felt able to move. We then started helping mothers and children and people who were clearly distressed. Men were crying too, it was really traumatic. But we were only a very small fraction of the stampede, the rest were still out there being squashed to death.

Once in the building we were stuck. The queue up the escalator and onto the trains was a mob and we were too terrified to get into another queue. Men were climbing up railings and jumping over barriers. The only other door was the one we had just come through. There was no way out, so we decided to sit in a corner and wait for the crowd to subside.

Sitting there was as traumatic as being in the crush outside. We could see the people through the glass being squashed and screaming and crying. Each time the door opened to allow another batch in, people would literally be flung into the room and fall. People were coming through gasping, clutching their chests. Bathed in sweat, their eyes were wild. Women and children were being trampled on.

The men manning the doors were volunteers desperately trying to rescue an out-of-control disaster. Eventually about five soldiers appeared who had come via the metro. They looked out at the crowd and shook their heads. It was hopeless. An ambulance was called. I am convinced that there must have been people crushed to death.

The queue at the escalator gradually subsided and we made a dash. Once we got to our platform it was calm. We were safe but we left behind thousands still trapped in the throng.

I went on line the next day to see what had been reported. Fantastic pictures of the Burj Khalifa aglow with fireworks. Fantastic facts about the tallest building in the world. But nothing about the horrors on the metro.

* Not her real name. The names of those mentioned in the story have also been changed.

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