x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Doha mall blaze victims' families call for justice

Investigation into deadly mall fire that killed 19 people finds firefighters didn't reach children trapped in a nursery until two hours after fire broke out.

Families of the Doha shopping mall fire called for justice yesterday after a government investigation found that firefighters took two hours to reach the 13 children trapped in a nursery inside.

The probe determined that although the fire caused by an electrical fault broke out at 10.50am in an adjoining shop, it was 12.50pm before firefighters were able to get to the victims in the Gympanzee nursery - by which time they were dead or dying, together with four adult employees.

Despite emergency crews arriving on the scene at 11.05am, it was another half-hour before firefighters even realised there were children inside the nursery in Doha's Villaggio Mall.

The report into the 19 deaths, which included two firefighters, found a catalogue of failures by shop and mall staff, a lack of fire safety training and inadequate equipment to deal with the blaze.

The government committee investigating the fire ruled there was a "lack of adherence to laws, systems and measures by all concerned parties to different degrees. This includes adherence to design, licence and safety conditions, which contributed to the Villaggio catastrophe".

Yesterday Louie Aban, the husband of Maribel Orosco, 29, one of the staff who died in Gympanzee, broke down as he said: "Someone should pay for this.

"I will see what result comes of the prosecutor's case, but if I am not satisfied, I will file a lawsuit against the mall."

Speaking over the phone from the Philippines, he said he planned to bury his wife tomorrow. The 31-year-old accountant has been left alone to bring up their nine-month-old baby, also called Louie.

"Maribel sacrificed her life for our boy and it hurts too much," he said. "My baby should have his mother here.

"This shows there was a complete mess-up by mall management. Firefighters did not reach the nursery in time because there were no floor plans and they did not know where to go.

"The question I want to ask is: where were all the mall staff? They secured their own safety but not the safety of the children in the nursery."

He said questions should be raised over training and evacuation procedures for mall staff: "They should be more responsible for other people, not just in Villaggio but in every mall. If a fire happens, they should first ensure there are no casualties."

Sarrinah Onday, 39, whose one-year-old son Russel missed his session at Gympanzee on the day of the May 28 fire because of a hospital appointment, was the last person to speak to Orosco just after the fire broke out and advised her over the phone to seek advice from a security guard when she first smelled smoke.

Orosco was told there was no need to panic and went back inside Gympanzee. Within 15 minutes, plumes of thick black smoke were pouring through the air conditioning unit of the childcare centre and blocking its entrance, making it impossible for the 17 children and adults inside to leave.

Mrs Onday said: "I don't blame Gympanzee staff because I know them and my son is very well cared for.

"But we have to ask how mall staff are being trained. It is like they hire anyone, not security staff. In Villaggio, they could not even tell you where the bathrooms were or speak English.

"I cannot feel angry because I am grateful my son is safe. I just want to feel numb. Every day, I keep waiting for Maribel to call."

The government report warned numerous other public buildings are lacking adequate safety measures.

The committee discovered the fire started accidentally because of faulty electrical wiring in a fluorescent light in the mezzanine level stockroom of a Nike sports shop. Once it began, it quickly spread to plastic materials and flammable goods in the stockroom.

The report blamed Nike shop workers and Villaggio security guards for failing to put out the blaze as soon as they realised stock had caught alight.

It states that although the fire was not premeditated, "staff of Nike store and Villaggio security men failed in extinguishing the fire. The first smoke was recorded at 10.50am, then the fire spread rapidly and the smoke leaked to the adjacent Gympanzee, which was home to the victims."

There were no sprinklers in the Nike store and firefighters were alerted by an off-duty member of their crew at 11.02am and were on the scene within three minutes.

But it was another 30 minutes before they were told about the trapped children and two hours before search and rescue teams could reach them. All 19 victims died of smoke inhalation.

They included two-year-old New Zealand triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes and three Spanish brothers, Almudena, Alfonso and Camilo Travesedo. The youngest victim was 15-month old Umar Emraan from South Africa, the oldest seven-year-old Isabel Vela from Spain.

South African care worker Shameega Charles, 29, also died with them, alongside Orosco and fellow Filipina carers Margie Yedyec and Julie Ann Soco.

The committee, acting on the orders of Qatar's deputy Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, found Gympanzee was not licensed as a nursery and did not have appropriate safety mechanisms.

Nor was there an early warning detection system found in the shopping complex.

"There was a lack of response among the Villaggio security team, including the Nike store's staff," read the report, released by the Qatar News Agency.

"The committee found there are no effectual plans at Villaggio meant to prevent, contain or at least reduce the effects of such an incident."

Members also blamed poor co-ordination between government agencies responsible for responding to emergencies.

They stated those deficiencies "extend beyond Villaggio and Gympanzee into other buildings in Qatar. These buildings are not adhering to the laws and measures regarding safety and firefighting.

"However, the committee was unable to determine the size of the problem."

They gave 11 recommendations after the tragedy, including a review of the regulations governing childcare facilities and suggested compiling a list of public buildings with inadequate fire safety measures.

Grace Aouani, the mother of two-year-old victim Zeinah, from Atlanta, Georgia, has previously criticised the "incompetence" responsible for the deaths.

She said she was shown a series of photographs of dead children and asked to identify her daughter.

"Fire can happen but these deaths could have been prevented. There is such incompetence that it makes me angry," she said.

Five people were arrested after the fire, including the nursery owner, Iman Al Kuwari, the daughter of a government minister, the mall manager Tzoulios Tzouliou and his assistant Rima Itani. No one has been charged in connection with the fire, although the public prosecution office is still investigating the incident.

Shop managers are waiting to hear if they can access the charred remains of their stores and smoke-damaged stock, with repairs expected to take months.

Mrs Onday said she could already see heightened awareness as a result of the tragedy: "There has been a series of small fires since then in Doha and thankfully people have been evacuated quickly.

"We cannot neglect lessons from what happened. They have to improve the training of security staff and be strict about building contracts and inspection while parents will be more careful about where they leave their children.

"I do not think it will happen again. I cannot imagine people will ever forget it."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae