x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Guard told nursery worker not to worry about smoke

A worker at the nursery inside Doha's Villaggio Mall asked a security guard if she should evacuate the children when smoke started to enter the nursery. The guard told her to relax and go back inside.

A Qatari carries the body of one of the 19 victims who died in a nursery when a fire swept through Doha's Vellaggio Mallg mall last week.
A Qatari carries the body of one of the 19 victims who died in a nursery when a fire swept through Doha's Vellaggio Mallg mall last week.

DOHA // At Russel Ali Onday's first birthday party today, there will be face painting, balloons, cakes and plenty of giggles.

But never far from the minds of parents Sarrinah and Roel Onday will be a thought almost too horrendous to contemplate: it's a miracle that their baby son is here today.

Russel was supposed to go to Gympanzee nursery on Monday, as he had done four times a week since he was born.

His mother was getting ready to drop him off when a call came from Hamad Hospital: Russel needed immunisation and could his mother bring him in that morning?

That same hospital was a scene of horror later that day: 13 little bodies were brought in after the fire in Doha's luxury Villaggio Mall and one by one, 13 children were declared dead.

In the last five days, Mrs Onday, 39, has had many moments of wondering what if - what if the call had not come from the hospital, what if she had taken Russel to the nursery that day?

Among the most pressing questions is what might have happened had the nursery staff been given different advice.

As the last person to speak to Maribel Orosco, one of the four nursery workers who died in the fire, Mrs Onday knew her friend had left the nursery to ask a security guard whether she should evacuate the children when alarms went off, only to be told there was no need to panic and she should go back inside.

It was one of a catalogue of failures which led to the tragic outcome of Monday's fire. And it is one of the reasons behind the anger rising from Qatar's expatriate community as they demand answers.

"We have been told by officials not to talk about it - but I am not going to stop asking questions. We need to find out the truth," Mrs Onday said defiantly at a community meeting on Thursday, jointly sponsored by the websites Doha News and I Love Qatar and attended by about 100 residents.

They all were asking the same question: how could the catastrophe have been prevented?

Among them were Gympanzee staff who were not on duty that morning but rushed to the mall as soon as they realised the seriousness of the fire.

A clearer picture is emerging of the final moments of the terrified children and the nursery carers. One nursery worker, who did not want to be named, said Shameega Charles, 29, one of the employees trapped inside, had phoned colleagues pleading for help.

She sobbed: "Shameega was saying: 'Can you help us? We can't breathe.' The children were screaming and crying in the background. My colleague was there at the mall telling them there were children inside - why didn't they listen to us? Shameega kept calling and saying they could not get out."

Mrs Onday said she was good friends with Orosco. As new mothers in the Philippine community - Orosco had given birth to her eight-month-old son Louie three months after Mrs Onday had Russel - the two had bonded.

The friends had already spoken early on Monday, when Orosco had volunteered to do the face painting at Russel's birthday party.

So when Orosco called Mrs Onday soon after the fire broke out at 11.03am, she called her Ate, or little sister.

There was smoke, she said, and she was not sure what to do. Mrs Onday urged her to go outside to check with security.

"They said not to panic, it was only a bit of smoke, so Maribel went back inside," Mrs Onday told those at the forum.

Fifteen minutes later, there was a much more ominous call.

"Maribel called again, crying. There was smoke coming through the air conditioning unit and she said: 'We don't know what to do, we need help.'

"I told her to grab some clothes and wet them in the bathroom. She wanted to evacuate the children but the smoke was already filling the front of the nursery and the back door was locked."

Mrs Onday stayed on the phone, listening with growing horror as the workers tried to calm the sobbing, screaming children.

The last thing her friend told her was that "something was falling from the roof" - presumably the firefighters hacking their way through the ceiling - before the line went dead. The rescurers were too late and two of them were among the 19 victims of the toxic fumes.

Martin and Jane Weekes, the parents of two-year-old triplets who died in the nursery, have called for calm while investigators try to find out what happened.

"We all want answers and accountability but we need to know what really happened and an extra week or even a month, if needed to find out the truth, will not hurt," they said in a statement last week.

For some though, those answers will not come soon enough. Kelvin Dickinson, a 43-year-old American engineer, told Thursday's gathering: "I am not shocked about what happened and it could happen again.

"None of these buildings were here 10 years ago and the construction is happening so fast, we are going to see some things done right and some done wrong."

Khalifa Haroon, the founder of I Love Qatar website, said he was "ashamed" of what had happened in his country.

Today, as the streamers go up at the Ondays and they welcome little Louie Orosco, there will be one face missing.

And Russel's birthday party will be as much a remembrance of Maribel Orosco and a thanksgiving that Russel missed Monday at the nursery.