Visitors on the observation deck of the world's tallest tower heard a loud boom, saw smoke seeping through a crack in an elevator door 124 floors above the ground.
The 15 people inside were trapped for 45 frightening minutes Saturday 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, 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.
Michael Timms, 31, an American telecommunications engineer who lives in Dubai, was on the observation deck with his cousin Michele Moscato when the or-deal began.
"It almost sounded like a small ex-plosion. It was a really loud bang," Timms said.
Moscato, 29, is a nurse visiting from Columbia, S.C., said, "I was really starting to get upset, getting really nervous. I started crying."
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 they 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.
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.