The second he learned that the building he was in caught fire, he did what his gut told him to do, “Take photos”. The minute he caught his breath after almost losing his life, he did what he does best: Take photos.
Dennis Mallari was more than that man who got stuck on the 48th floor of the burning hotel on New Year’s Eve—he was a photojournalist through and through, driven and dedicated.
“You only have that one moment to take the shot, when you get that chance, you can’t let it pass,” Mallari told The Filipino Times two days after the fire incident at The Address hotel in Dubai.
The next day, January 1, Al Bayan, one of the country’s biggest local newspapers, bore his photos of Burj Khalifa’s firework spectacle. They were all sharp as usual, and as vivid as how Mallari would remember that near-death coverage.
“When my photographer friend told me that there was a fire incident nearby and that we had to leave, my first instinct was to take photos. I would evacuate after a few shots,” he said.
He swung his camera, snapped a number of frames and even filmed the burning scene, not knowing that the blaze is quickly razing the building from 20 floors below.
By the time he was ready to leave, thick black smoke billowed out around him and filled the 48th floor in no time. He knew it was too late to go to the fire exit.
“I didn’t know that the fire was just below me, and I didn’t expect it would spread that fast,” said Mallari, narrating the panic that ensued. “I could die from suffocation.”
He stepped out, stayed in the open space of the balcony, and whispered a prayer. He called his wife first and then all his other friends, alerting them that he was trapped in the building and that he needed help. The photographers he was with that night ran up to the Civil Defense officials on the site to tell them that their friend was still up there.
“My cell phone save my life,” he said. “If I wasn’t able to communicate with anyone, I may not have made it out there alive.”
He was ready to rappel his way down the building from the 48th floor with only his belt tied to the heavy-duty rope that held cleaning platforms.
“I knew that the rope wasn’t long enough to carry me all the way to the ground and that there’s a chance that the belt couldn’t support me,” the 37-year-old photojournalist said. He is a veteran lensman who has worked with the leading papers and news outfits in the Philippines before he came to Dubai 10 years ago.
Rescuers scoured through the building to find him, but it wasn’t easy as he wasn’t in any of the hotel rooms but in a space not open to the public. All the while, one of the heads of the Civil Defense team stayed on the phone and kept talking to him to calm his nerves, assuring him that help was on the way.
Still alert and bright-eyed, he saw a shadow pass along the corridor. That was when he mustered whatever strength he had left and clanged a material made of aluminum repeatedly and as loud as he could until he caught the attention of the rescuer.
“We ran all the way down the building through an exit until I was brought to the ambulance where I was given an oxygen mask, and medical assistance,” he said.
By then, it was already 11:30 p.m., just half an hour before Dubai was to burst into a grand show to usher in the New Year. Soon as he was cleared by the medical team, he took his camera and captured the fireworks.
Authorities have started the investigation of the incident, the cause of which is still unknown as of press time. Fifteen people were slightly hurt and one suffered a heart attack. There were no fatalities and all the people who were injured were given immediate medical attention before they were transported to hospitals for further treatment.
Slightly limping from the cramps and muscle pain he suffered, Mallari was still reeling from the coverage that almost cost him his life.
But with the outpour of love that stormed his Facebook newsfeed and kept his phone abuzz, he knew he is off to an exciting year ahead. Everyone, strangers included, had one thing to say: “Thank goodness you’re safe.”
And thankful he was. Very thankful. “For the belt, the cable wire, Civil Defense, friends, and God,” he wrote in a post.
Watch Dennis Mallari’s footage of the fire