Additional reporting by Hassan Mohamed
A number of families have been forced out of their homes after a massive fire broke out in a warehouse in Malé on Thursday night (March 19), sending plumes of flame and smoke 60 feet into the air.
The two-storey Lily Store warehouse in Maafanu ward was completely destroyed, causing damages worth an estimated MVR30 million (US$1.9 million), according to Lily Store owner Ahmed Naseer.
Homes in the area were evacuated around 11:15pm as the flames leapt from Maafanu Oak Villa to adjacent buildings in the narrow alley. Residents first heard loud cracking noises like gunfire or explosions before the flames were visible.
Deodorant bottles, gas cylinders, one lorry, and three pickups were inside the warehouse.
All the windows of the multi-storey building opposite the warehouse were shattered and deodorant bottles were later found inside its apartments.
According to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) fire and rescue service, the fire was contained around 12:00am and completely extinguished about two hours later with members of the public working alongside police officers and firemen.
Fire lorries were unable to use water cannons for nearly 30 minutes with the narrow streets surrounding the warehouse packed with panic-stricken and fleeing residents.
Residents from the neighbourhood told Minivan News that many people emerged from their homes in night dresses, and some were carrying crying toddlers.
On Saturday morning, smoke was still spewing out of the burnt-down warehouse.
The fire had spread to the third floor of an adjacent building as well as a construction site whilst the roof of a nearby house had collapsed.
The apartment now lies in ruins and many houses were looted after residents fled.
Malé City Councilor Shamau Shareef said a family of ten was sheltering at Malé’s Social Centre with the neighbourhood home to about 500 people still engulfed in smoke.
Shamau said about four families were forced out of their homes with their buildings uninhabitable, walls still scalding hot and belongings burnt.
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party councillor called on MNDF and police to expedite cleaning up the area as the “toxic fumes are not safe to breathe.” He also urged the government to provide temporary shelter to the four affected families.
However, Shamau commended the MNDF and police both for their prompt response and safely evacuating the neighbourhood.
Apart from an elderly man reportedly treated at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital for smoke inhalation, no one was harmed in the fire.
A middle-aged woman seeking refuge at the social centre told Minivan News that the explosions she heard “sounded like gunfire.”
“We were all sleeping when the fire broke out. I was woken up by very loud explosions. Soon someone started knocking on the door loudly and asked us to evacuate,” she recalled.
“My child still is only eating now, yesterday he barely ate anything and had trouble sleeping,” she said, pointing to her 13-year-old son having biscuits and tea at the social centre’s small cafeteria.
She expressed gratitude to the Disaster Management Centre for arranging temporary shelter and providing food and other essentials.
“I understand it is a difficult time for everyone. We do not have all the luxuries we had at home. But I am happy with what they have done for us,” she said.
A resident of the neighbourhood, Ali Rasheed, 52, said his family has been sleeping and eating at friend’s places as living in their home was “unbearable” because of the smoke.
“I believe the government should be held accountable for this. The fire trucks were not able to provide water until much later,” he said.
Lily Store owner Naseer told local media that nothing was salvaged from the warehouse, which he said was stored with newly imported goods ten days ago. However, the warehouse was insured, Naseer said.
Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed visited the damaged homes this morning.
A police media official confirmed today that a separate fire occurred at Ekuveni around 12:00am on Thursday night, less than an hour after the warehouse fire broke out.
Police began patrolling the city whilst MNDF officers were deployed to petrol sheds and other strategic locations.
A security guard at the sports complex told Minivan News that he saw two “youngsters on a motorcycle” hurl what appeared to be petrol bombs into the premises. However, the fires were quickly extinguished.
“I immediately called the police and started working on extinguishing the fire,” he said.
The second fire fueled speculation of coordinated attacks, and police have not ruled out arson in the warehouse fire, saying all lines of inquiry were open in the ongoing investigation.
“We are working hard to identify those involved in the dangerous fire in Malé on Thursday night, and will take strict action against them,” Police Commissioner Hussain Waheed wrote on Facebook today.
Cover photo by Laisha Mohamed Shakir