The Burj Khalifa
Kamran Jebreili  /  AP
The Burj Khalifa, the world’s 828 meter tallest building, is illuminated during the official opening ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. An electrical issue forced the unexpected closure of the observation deck on Monday.
updated 2/9/2010 2:24:11 PM ET 2010-02-09T19:24:11

Visitors on the observation deck of the world's tallest tower heard a loud boom, then saw dust that looked like smoke seeping through a crack in an elevator door 124 floors above the ground. The 15 people inside were trapped for 45 frightening minutes until rescuers managed to pry open the doors.

Because the elevator was apparently stuck between floors, rescuers had to drop a ladder into the shaft so those inside could crawl out. On the observation deck, about 60 more people were stranded and some began to panic.

Shortly after the drama unfolded on Saturday evening, the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa that was supposed to be one of Dubai's proudest achievements shut down to the public just a month after its grandiose opening. It was the latest embarrassment for the once-booming Gulf city-state that is now mired in a deep financial crisis.

Witnesses who were on the 124th floor observation deck at the time and a Dubai rescue official recounted on Tuesday the chain of events that led up to the shutdown in interviews with The Associated Press.

Emaar Properties, the state-linked company that owns Burj Khalifa, has said little about the incident and nothing about an elevator malfunction. It had no comment Tuesday.

It remains unclear what caused the elevator to the observation deck — the only part of the building that was open — to fail.

Michael Timms, 31, an American telecommunications engineer who lives in Dubai, was on the observation deck with his cousin Michele Moscato when the ordeal began.

"It almost sounded like a small explosion. It was a really loud bang," Timms said.

It would take another 45 minutes for rescue crews to arrive and pry open the elevator door, he said.

From what he saw, the elevator's roof looked to be about where the floor should have been, so rescuers hoisted a ladder into the shaft to help those trapped inside crawl out. Some were clearly shaken.

"One lady I saw ... she didn't say a word," Timms said. "She just looked shocked and dazed, then walked directly to the wall and sat down on the floor."

Kamran Jebreili  /  AP
An Emirati man looks over the city view at an observation point screen at the observation deck of the Burj Dubai tower, on Level 124 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Abu Naseer, a spokesman for Dubai's civil defense department, said the call for help came in around 6:20 p.m. Saturday evening. Emergency crews used another elevator to reach the observation deck and were able to rescue all 15 people in the elevator unharmed, he said.

The incident was the latest to tarnish the international reputation of Dubai, one of seven small sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.

In recent years, Dubai boomed on borrowed wealth that went into extravagant real estate projects such as islands shaped like palm trees and rows of striking new skyscrapers.

Then the financial crisis hit and real estate prices plunged to half their value in a year. The government and many state-run companies struggled to pay their bills — debts that surpassed $80 billion. Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital and Dubai's oil-rich neighbor, pumped $20 billion in bailout funds to rescue Dubai.

Slideshow: Skyscrapers of the world In a nod to the bailout patron, the tower originally known as Burj Dubai was renamed Burj Khalifa for the emir of Abu Dhabi and UAE president Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The surprise renaming was announced at the lavish opening ceremony on Jan. 4.

Emaar, which owns the 2,717-foot (828-meter) building, has not responded to specific questions about the incident that led to the shutdown or made anyone available to speak despite repeated requests by the AP.

Local newspapers reported the shutdown on Monday but it was still not clear exactly when the building was closed.

Emaar issued a brief statement in response to questions Monday saying the viewing platform was temporarily shut for "maintenance and upgrade" because of "unexpected high traffic." It also hinted at electrical problems, saying "technical issues with the power supply are being worked on by the main and subcontractors."

Emaar has made no mention of problems with the elevators, angering some of those involved in the incident.

"What just kind of shocks me is that they were going to brush this under the rug to save face. If it broke, at least tell people it broke," Timms said.

Witnesses say Emaar provided little information to visitors stuck on the 124th floor observation deck as rescue crews worked. That lack of information caused panic among some visitors.

"I was really starting to get upset, getting really nervous," said Moscato, 29, a nurse visiting from Columbia, South Carolina. "I started crying."

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She said she and Timms — along with other visitors, some in raised voices — asked to use the stairs because they felt uncomfortable taking the elevator back down, but were told that was not allowed. Visitors were eventually taken down in a freight elevator not normally used by the public, they said.

Moscato said one of those trapped in the elevator told her later that the lights went off and the car began to fall before the brakes kicked in. It was not possible to independently verify the account.

The tower's 57 elevators are supplied by Farmington, Conn.-based Otis Elevator Co., part of United Technologies Corp. Otis spokesman Dilip Rangnekar said the installation is ongoing. He declined to comment, however, on Saturday's malfunction, saying it was up to owner Emaar to release details.

Because of its immense height, the Burj will have separate sections on levels 43, 76 and 123 known as "sky lobbies" where tenants will change from express elevators to local ones that stop on each floor.

Visitors to the observation deck use dedicated elevators that whisk them from the base to the 124th viewing floor in about a minute.

The tower was designed by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which has a long track record engineering some of the world's tallest buildings, including Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest in the U.S. formerly known as the Sears Tower.

A Skidmore spokeswoman and engineers involved in the Burj's construction did not respond to requests for comment.

The observation deck was the only part of the tower that had opened as work continued on the rest of the building's interior. The first tenants were supposed to move in this month.

The tower rises more than 160 stories, though the exact number of floors is not known. The tapering, silvery tower ranks not only as the highest building but also as the tallest freestanding structure in the world.

The observation deck, which is mostly enclosed but includes an outdoor terrace bordered by guard rails, is located about two-thirds of the way up.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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