x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'I'm dying': tragic last words of teacher in Doha mall fire

Horrific details of Monday's fire at the Gympanzee nursery in the Villaggio shopping mall emerge as Qatar's attorney genera issues five arrest warrants in connection with the blaze.

Flowers laid down at the entrance to the Villaggio Mall in Doha. The owner of the mall, the owner of the nursery and three senior mall officials were ordered to be detained as the investigation into the Doha mall fire continued.
Flowers laid down at the entrance to the Villaggio Mall in Doha. The owner of the mall, the owner of the nursery and three senior mall officials were ordered to be detained as the investigation into the Doha mall fire continued.

DOHA // A teacher who died in the Doha mall nursery fire sent a text message to her aunt saying "I'm dying", minutes before she was overcome by smoke from the blaze.

And a firefighter who died trying to rescue victims was found with the bodies of two children in his arms.

The horrific details of Monday's fire at the Gympanzee nursery in the Villaggio shopping mall emerged yesterday as Qatar's attorney general, Dr Ali bin Fetais Marri, issued five arrest warrants in connection with the blaze.

The owner of the mall, the owner of the nursery and three senior mall officials were ordered to be detained as the investigation continued.

The fire claimed the lives of 13 children, four teachers and two firefighters. Among the children who died were two-year-old triplets from New Zealand and three Spanish siblings.

Rescue crews had to hack through the roof of the mall to reach the nursery after a staircase collapsed.

As smoke and flames surrounded the nursery, two of the four teachers sent text messages and made desperate calls to family, said one of their friends, Marilyn Evangelista.

"I'm dying," one of the three Filipino teachers told her aunt in a text message. Another teacher, also from the Philippines, called her husband to say she and the children were "trapped, the smoke is too thick".

A firefighter, Abdel Khaleq Al Huwari, said rescue teams were not told there was a nursery in the mall "until half an hour after" they arrived. A mall employee eventually told them there was a nursery on the first floor.

Mr Al Huwari was one of the first into the building after the fire subsided and found his Moroccan colleague, Hossam Chahboune, lying dead on the floor "holding two children in his arms".

"The other firefighter was barely alive when we found him," said Mr Al Huwari. "We tried to save him but he died."

Several other children lay around the firefighters, all dead.

Another firefighter, Ahmed Mohsen, described Chahboune as "a leader to us" and said all the children in the nursery had died. "Five in the ambulance, three at the hospital and the rest right at the spot."

Qatar's interior ministry said after the fire that the building's sprinkler system malfunctioned and rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of floor plans. Witnesses also said some fire-exit doors were locked and that the response from mall employees was slow and inefficient.

Authorities yesterday also ordered the seizure of all Villaggio official licences as part of the investigation. It is believed the licence for Gympanzee was for a business and not an educational centre.

A relative of the day care centre’s owner said the business was not licensed through the ministry of social affairs because it was not a nursery.

“It’s always been an activity centre,” he told Doha News. “A nursery involves school...(this) is like a babysitting thing.”
In that regard, he said, Gympanzee held all the commercial permits it needed including approval from the civil defence department issued three weeks ago.

The relative also called attention to the obstacles firefighters faced during the rescue effort, including malfunctioning sprinkler systems, lack of emergency lighting and the unavailability of floor plans.

“We know there is an investigation going on and we don’t want to undermine it…this is to give a full picture,” he said.

The mall was closed to the public yesterday where investigators continued to investigate the fire-damaged sections. A team of cleaners cleared debris and washed down floors and civil defence workers guarded the complex.

Among the firefighters keeping watch was Wissam Boulmane, 23, from Morocco. He came to Qatar less than a year ago in the same group as Mr Chahboune, who died in the fire.

"It's really sad to see one of your own go, I've never heard of a firefighter dying here in Qatar," he said.

Mr Boulmane said he called in to work, along with all members of the civil defence team, to fight the blaze.

"There were hundreds of us at the scene and the fire was still burning hours after we got there", he said.

Funeral prayers were held on Tuesday for Mr Chahboune and Mahmoud Haider, the Iranian firefighter who died. Their colleagues were emotional and a few could not hold back their tears.

"We lost part of our family," said Hussam Hussein, 23, a firefighter from Tunisia who suffered smoke inhalation. "When I tried to get in through the roof the smoke was so much I fainted."

Kareem Mousad, 25, said the smoke in the building made the rescue job difficult. "You couldn't see anything in there, it was all pitch black," he said.

Ali Saeed Al Qahtani, a firefighter for five years, said it was the worst tragedy he had seen during his time with the Qatari civil defence. He said it took time for firefighters to learn that people were trapped inside.

"It took 30 minutes for us to receive word people were trapped inside. We had no idea."

tsubaihi@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse