A massive fireworks display kicked off for New Year at the world’s tallest tower in Dubai, while plumes of smoke billowed in the air from a fire raging at a nearby luxury tower.
Tens of thousands of people whistled and cheered at the show taking place at the Burj Khalifa skyscraper as teams of firefighters were working to put out the blaze that had engulfed a 63-story luxury hotel and residential building.
Just minutes before the fireworks began, large explosions could be heard from inside the burning building, which was cloaked in thick black smoke. It was not clear what caused the blasts.
At least 14 people were slightly injured and one person suffered a heart attack from the smoke and over-crowding during evacuation late Thursday, according to Dubai Media Office. The statement said another person was moderately injured, without elaborating further. No children were among those injured, it said.
Around one million people had been expected to gather around the Burj Khalifa to watch the fireworks. Dubai’s economy depends heavily on tourism, and New Year is one of the busiest seasons, drawing people from around the world to watch the fireworks that the emirate puts on at the world’s tallest tower, as well as the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab and over a man-made palm-shaped island.
Organisers had installed 400,000 LED lights on the Burj Khalifa and used some 1.6 tons of fireworks for the seven-minute extravaganza. Two years ago at New Year, Dubai broke the world record for the largest fireworks display.
The fire engulfed the Address Downtown, one of the most upscale hotels and residences in Dubai, which was likely to have been packed with people because of its clear view of the 828-metre (905-yard) tall Burj Khalifa.
The hotel towers over the Souq Al Bahar, a popular shopping area with walkways that connect to the Burj Khalifa and the Middle East’s largest mall, the Dubai Mall.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, which ran up the 63-story building. The Address is a 991 foot-tall (302-metre) skyscraper that has 626 luxury apartments and 196 hotel rooms, according to Skyscraper Centre, which tracks such buildings.
Dubai’s Media Office wrote on its official Twitter account that four teams of firefighters were working to put out the blaze. They said the fire appears to have originated on a 20th floor terrace.
The fire broke out about two hours before the midnight fireworks display was set to begin. To manage the crowds, Dubai police had closed off some roads and the metro before the fire broke out.
Nearly an hour after the fire began, some onlookers began to leave while others stood, pressed against crowd barricades, watching the blaze. Among them was Chris Browne, a tourist from London, who watched with her husband, Stephen, standing behind her. They said they hoped no one was injured.
“It’s pretty scary stuff,” she said.
Standing nearby, Stuart O’Donnell, a British intensive care nurse who works in Dubai, said he was worried for those inside the building as it was in a prime location to watch the fireworks display.
“You feel sad for the people inside... It spread so quickly when it started,” he said.
He and others in the crowd wondered what had started the blaze.
“I do feel suspicious of when a fire breaks out on New Year’s Eve,” he said.
The Dubai Media Office said that Dubai’s tourism department would provide guests evacuated from the building with alternative hotel accommodation.
After the fireworks show, Girlie Omilda, a Filipina who works in the aviation industry in Dubai, said she was glad to have seen the fireworks, even as the tower continued to burn. She too was concerned about threats from extremists like the Islamic State group. She said Dubai’s large expatriate, non-Muslim population made the city a tempting target.
“Sometimes it makes me feel unsafe,” she said.
Earlier New Zealand counted down the seconds to midnight with a giant digital clock on Auckland’s Sky Tower as it become the first nation with a sizeable population to welcome in the new year.
Horns blared and crowds cheered as the tower was then lit up with fireworks, with colours shifting from green to red to white.
In Australia, simultaneous fireworks displays erupted along Sydney’s famed harbour, where people crowded onto balconies, into waterside parks and onto boats as they jockeyed for the best view, clinking glasses and whooping with joy as the first pyrotechnics exploded.
More than one million people were expected to watch the glittery display, featuring a multicoloured firework “waterfall” cascading off the Harbour Bridge and effects in the shapes of butterflies, octopuses and flowers.
Australian officials, struggling to contain the threat from home-grown extremists, encouraged revellers to enjoy the evening and assured them that thousands of extra police were patrolling major cities.
“Don’t change your way of life,” Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle urged residents of his city. “Don’t let events from around the world challenge the way that we live.”
New Year’s Eve is Japan’s biggest holiday, and millions crammed into trains to flee the cities for their home towns to slurp down bowls of noodles, symbolising longevity, while watching the annual Red and White NHK song competition.
Tokyo was on special alert for security issues this year, with posters in underground stations and other public spaces warning people to keep their eyes open for suspicious packages or activities.
South Koreans traditionally mark New Year’s Eve with bell ringing ceremonies, fireworks and outdoor music and dance performances.
Thousands of people, including North Korean refugees, were expected to gather at a town near the border with rival North Korea to watch one of the ceremonies and wish for peaceful Korean unification.
North Korea was expected to mark the new year with a speech by leader Kim Jong Un, which outside observers use to pore over for insight on the reclusive country’s policy direction.
Meanwhile China held an official New Year’s Eve celebration near Beijing’s Forbidden City.
For security reasons, Shanghai closed underground stations near the scenic waterfront Bund because of a stampede last New Year’s Eve that killed 36 people and blemished the image of China’s most prosperous and modern metropolis.
Security is a big concern in many cities around the world this New Year’s Eve.
In the Thai capital Bangkok, police-flanked partygoers rang in the new year at the site of a deadly bombing that took place just months ago.
In Paris, residents recovering from their city’s own deadly attacks will enjoy scaled-back celebrations.
And in the Belgian capital Brussels, 2016 will be rung in without the customary fireworks display and street party.
The festivities were cancelled by mayor Yvan Mayeur, who said on Wednesday evening it would have been impossible to administer adequate security checks to all of the 100,000 people expected to attend.
On Thursday morning, forklifts and trucks removed generators and other equipment from the Place de Brouckere, the broad square in central Brussels where the fireworks show was supposed to happen. Some people said they understood the cancellation, others called it knuckling under to the extremist threat.
“I think it is a good and wise decision,” said Koen Vandaele, a Brussels resident. “There could be a lot of confusion if the fireworks started” and there was a fresh attack.
“I think it is backing down to the threat to terrorism,” disagreed Ken Kinsella, another Brussels resident. “There is no point in running away from it so I think they should have gone ahead with it.”