x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Doha mall fire: Tragic list of characters in a terrible, terrible tale

The scars and burns inside the nursery are nothing compared with those in the hearts of grieving relatives. For them the oft-expressed hope that lessons will be learnt will forever come with two dreadful words: 'too late'.

A woman writes a message during a memorial for the dead of Doha's mall fire as mourners gathered at the 'Aspire Zone' in Doha
A woman writes a message during a memorial for the dead of Doha's mall fire as mourners gathered at the 'Aspire Zone' in Doha

The scars and burns inside the nursery are nothing compared with those in the hearts of grieving relatives. For them the oft-expressed hope that lessons will be learnt will forever come with two dreadful words: 'too late'.

There is debris and water underfoot. Shopfronts are splintered and shutters buckled. Overhead, a ceiling once the permanent azure blue of a faux summer sky is blackened and smoke-damaged.

Only the jaunty yellow banner above the entrance to Gympanzee nursery and day care remains oddly intact - amid all of the devastation the welcoming message and images of smiling children remain clearly visible on the walls, urging them to come on in and "monkey around".

Twenty-four hours after fire tore through the lives of so many, here at the burnt-out heart of Villaggio Mall was a chill reminder of what had gone before and what had been so completely destroyed.

Yesterday onlookers shuddered at how the "unthinkable" had happened. But hour by hour, as details emerged, a more shocking truth began to rise with them: more devastating than unthinkable, the outcome of Monday's fire in Doha's upmarket Villaggio Mall was, in so many ways, inevitable.

Rescuers lost vital time as floor plans, once found, proved inaccurate and access routes - long, narrow corridors - woefully inadequate. Sprinklers malfunctioned and failed to go off. And although they arrived on the scene within eight minutes of being alerted to the fire, the emergency services were apparently unaware that there was a nursery at the centre of the mall, or of the tragedy that was unfolding within.

Trapped on the first floor when the solitary staircase gave way, the doors blocked by heat and smoke, the adults and children who perished there never stood a chance.

It is testament to the courage of the firefighters - two of whom lost their lives as teams broke through the roof and pulled children to safety - that anyone trapped in Gympanzee escaped with their lives.

The firefighters who died were Mahmoud Haider, 22, believed to be Palestinian, and Hossam Chahboune, 27, from Morocco. Mr Chahboune carried two victims to safety before running back inside and being overcome by thick smoke. All 19 victims died from smoke asphyxiation.

"The situation was very difficult due to the massive fire and heavy smoke in addition to the narrow corridors leading to the nursery, so new instructions were given to the search and rescue team to find an alternative entry," Qatar's minister of state for internal affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, said on Monday night.

"That entry was from the top of the complex. Time was really critical and the teams took some time because the maps were not immediately available."

The cause and the exact location of the fire are still under investigation, although there are suggestions that an electrical fault may have been to blame, with one of the sports shops that flanked Gympanzee in a crescent of tightly packed retail outlets as its likely source.

What is known is that about 11am on Monday, some about 20 children were in the daycare centre, a popular establishment for children aged between 1 and 4, and costing Dh2,000 a month. There was a waiting list of up to six months for membership, although on any given day the nursery was open to the public and had provision for up to five more children.

Among the children there on Monday were three regular visitors: triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes, aged 2, from New Zealand. Their father, Martin Weekes, is a senior adviser at a Qatar government agency, Media Services. He and his wife Jane have lived in Doha for close to five years, although she returned to New Zealand to give birth to her golden-haired triplets.

Only last week she was writing online about potty-training the children, posting her comments on babycenter.com and joking that she had broken a vow not to coordinate the triplets' outfits: "Like jeans and different coloured polo or T-shirts, or different styles (only 1 dress!) but the same colour … yup, it's too cute to resist!"

Mrs Weekes had left the triplets at Gympanzee before. On Monday she did so because she was going to a coffee morning with fellow expat mothers - a small and close community. Last night her mother, Jo Turner, was travelling along with other family members to be at her daughter and son-in-law's side. "What can you say?" Mrs Turner said. "They were everything to her. She was a great mum."

That same morning Moeneeb Emeran, from South Africa, dropped his 15-month-old son into the day-care centre. He and his wife had first done so three weeks before, and met Shameega Charles, 29, a nursery teacher from Cape Town. They did not know Shameega terribly well, he reflected yesterday, but they knew that little Umar was happy in her care and that he was "fantastically naughty and loved".

There were four Spanish children, brothers Almudena, Alfonso and Camilo Travesedo, whose father Camilo was a senior construction worker from Madrid, and a seven-year-old called Isabel. There was a little French girl aged 3, and Hana Sharabati, also 3 - children identified now only because they were left at Gympanzee that morning and never returned home. There were others, too, from Japan and the Philippines, who would never again greet their parents with a kiss and tales of their morning's play.

And there were their teachers, Maribel Orosco, Margie Yedyec and Julie Ann Soco - all from the Philippines, and Ms Charles, herself a mother of a 5-year-old son back in South Africa. She had been due to visit him in August. Last night her mother in South Africa said: "We have still not been able to tell him of his mother's passing."

All of these children and all of their carers were expatriates, although the nursery was owned by a Qatari mother of four and graphic designer Iman Al Kuwari, the daughter of Dr Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, Qatar's culture, arts and heritage minister who attended yesterday's memorial in Aspire Park.

Tarek Bazley, a former journalist from New Zealand, was in the mall with his 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son when the fire started. He said yesterday: "At about 11 o'clock the fire alarm went off. It wasn't a very alarming bell. It sounded more like a repeated doorbell and was kind of annoying. I asked a guard who was attending the soft play area if it was something we should be worried about. He said, 'No, no. It happens all the time. Carry on as you were'."

It was only when a member of the public ran through the mall about 20 minutes later, shouting that the place was on fire, that Mr Bazley and other shoppers began to leave the building. He was shocked by what he saw when he did, "We left the building to see huge plumes of smoke coming from the top of the mall.

"We were fortunate enough to have a fire exit near to where we were standing. A colleague of mine who also happened to be in the mall with his wife and children said that the first fire exit they came to was padlocked shut and chained."

There are other suggestions that while the doors to the nursery were not locked, some exterior mall doors had been padlocked to prevent labourers entering.

About 180 emergency personnel were ultimately deployed to tackle the fire and treat the dozen or so injured. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, crowds of shoppers watched in dismay as smoke billowed from the mall and rescue teams faced the grim task of pulling out more bodies than survivors.

Much of the effort that ultimately focused on the roof was filmed by onlookers - shaky images of security guards clutching their hands in their heads, tenderly passing the limp form of a girl down to a waiting stretcher. It is unclear if she lived.

A few feet away, another rescuer cradles a boy who can be no more than 4 and hangs heavy in his arms. Those needing treatment for burns were transported to nearby Rumaella Hospital. The 19 who died were taken to Hamdan Hospital, and although some are thought to have been alive when pulled from the blaze, the grim reality is that most were already dead. Nursery teacher Maribel Orosco's brother, Michael, who had also been in the mall, was taken to the Hamdan but discharged uninjured later that day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the corridors of Hamdan, expressions of distress and shock gave way to criticism of safety standards and urgent questions.

American Roxanne Davis, the founder of Doha Mums, a mothers' group that has 1,100 members from 100 countries and which recommended Gympanzee as one of about 20 nurseries on its website, said parents had long feared the risks their children faced.

She said: "We do not necessarily know what safety standards there are. The nurseries are held to very strict safety standards and we know they do their best to comply with them but I think the workmanship here in Qatar is not up to the level we would expect in our home countries."

Mrs Davis was at pains to point out that nobody was levelling blame at Gympanzee. She said she had spoken to the owner, Mrs Al Kawari, on Monday and that she was "beside herself".

"She told me, 'Today I lost 17 members of my own family.' She worked so hard on the nursery and so hard on making it a good place.

"But it is important to know what's behind the walls - does the electricity work properly, are the stairs going to fail - those are the things we cannot see."

The paucity of the emergency procedures was such that some people who had left the mall started going back in when unable to get taxis, heading back towards the fire oblivious to the danger.

Two members of mall management have been arrested and are being questioned as part of the Qatari authorities' investigation, but on blogs and support groups the questions are mounting: why was there not a swift and immediate evacuation of the mall? Why was a nursery ever established in an essentially locked-in location? Why did sprinklers fail? Why were the floor plans, once obtained by emergency services desperately trying to navigate the 360,000 square metre mall, inaccurate?

And for the parents and families of the children and the firefighters and the teachers who died, there must be the excoriating pain of the boundless "Why?"

Last night the Weekes family issued a statement: "Lillie, Jackson and Willsher came into this world together and were inseparable as siblings, best friends and the joy of our life. Tragically they left together after only two short years. A time that was lived to the full every day with us, laughing, playing, waking us at all hours of the night and simply being the sunshine of our lives.

"We would like to thank everyone for their love and support. Our thoughts are also with the other families affected by this tragedy."

Meanwhile, across Doha, a peel of memorial services began after Asr prayers - first for the firefighters who had died, then prayers at the Aspire sports centre, and later a Catholic Mass offered. Doha Mums will ran a crisis session offering counselling to members and advice from psychologists on how to explain the deaths to their children.

There is still the acrid smell of smoke and a dark pall above Villaggio Mall. Last night yellow fire engines remained parked outside, although there are no more lives to be saved or lost.

Only, perhaps, lessons to be learnt.

* The National