x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

‘Deafening silence’ on fatal Doha mall fire

Today is the first anniversary of the Villaggio mall fire in which 13 children and six adults died. Three of the children were triplets and their father, Martin Weekes, is angered by the delay in getting justice.

Martin and Jane Weeks, the parents of the triplets killed in the fire. Families of the dead have made public their dissatisfaction with the pace of the court case. Lee Hoagland / The National
Martin and Jane Weeks, the parents of the triplets killed in the fire. Families of the dead have made public their dissatisfaction with the pace of the court case. Lee Hoagland / The National

For the nine families who lost children when a fire ripped through a nursery in a shopping mall in Qatar, a year has been an agonisingly long time.

For Martin and Jane Weekes, the New Zealand couple whose triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher came to symbolise the tragedy in Villaggio Mall in Doha a year ago today, what had been a boisterous house full of love was replaced by one in which Martin says they are “deafened by silence”.

But for the Weekes and the other expatriate families whose children died – from China, Canada, France, South Africa, Spain, Egypt and the United States – a different kind of silence is causing concern.

The outpouring of support and sympathy immediately after the fire was replaced by anger at hearing that the Gympanzee nursery was unlicensed, emergency exits in the mall had been chained shut and sprinkler systems were malfunctioning.

A trial to determine criminal responsibility opened in December, with those facing charges including the owner of Gympanzee, Iman Al Kuwari, mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business and Trade.

All those under investigation have denied the charges, with a defence counter request for Nike sportsware, in whose shop the fire started, to be added to the list of those under investigation, along with insurance companies and Doha civil defence.

The judge has also to decide whether to split the case between criminal and civil actions, allowing the question of compensation to be decided in another court. Qatari blood money payments are a standard Dh200,000.

Families of the dead have made public their dissatisfaction with the pace of the court case. It was November 29, more than six months after the fire, before the Gympanzee owners attended court, having missed four previous court appearances at which the families were present.

There have also been disputes about Gympanzee’s status. At a hearing in January, evidence was produced showing it was licensed for six business activities, including a play room, but not as a childcare facility. The parents claim to have documentary evidence proving the owners represented it as a nursery, which would have required different evacuation standards.

One source, speaking on behalf of the families, said they were unhappy at what they saw was a lack of transparency in the proceedings, adding that the official report into the fire has not been made public.

The families were upset that the Villaggio Mall was allowed to reopen on September 21, before any information was given about what went wrong that day or what safety improvements had been made to stop it happening again.

In a statement at the time, the families wrote: “We are angered that the Villaggio owners have not even had the courtesy to invite us to grieve for our children in private at the location where they died.

“It is unacceptable that, as of today, the families have had zero communication from the government. We have legitimate questions to be answered.”

Their grief has also been revived by a series of new fire alerts at the Villaggio: in the food court on December 17, in an air conditioning unit at Topshop on April 3 and in a cinema snack machine on April 6.

All prompted full or partial evacuations, although the alarms were attributed to a high-sensitivity smoke detection system installed in the mall after the fatal blaze.

Over the past year, each of the families has adjusted to the new reality in their own way. Birthdays and anniversaries are difficult and the families found support in each other, even after most of them returned to their home countries.

Ahmed Shata, the father of Youssef Shata, went to Mecca in February for what would have been his son’s fourth birthday and prayed “at the holy mosque for him and for all the 19 angels that we lost”.

Martin and Jane Weekes, now back in New Zealand, have been active in pursuing justice for Peanut, Jackie and Winkie – their nicknames for Lillie, Jackson and Willsher, who would have been three in March. They appealed to the New Zealand prime minister, John Key, to intervene at head-of-state level to obtain progress.

In a television interview last October, Martin spoke about being “deafened by silence” since the fire.

“We don’t hear the children laughing, we don’t hear the children playing. And I’m certainly not hearing any answers to any of our questions,” he said.

“And it’s very difficult to find any enjoyment in life. Jane and I miss the chaos and love of being parents.

“These things haunt us. It’s not just that there was a fire. Why weren’t they evacuated? We’ve been told that security told the teachers the fire was out and to stay where they were. How can this happen at 11 o’clock on a weekday in the most populous mall in the country?”

As the Weekes family tries to pick up the pieces, there has been some good news. Jane Weekes is pregnant with twins and is due to give birth in August.

jhenzell@thenational.ae