x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Kuwaitis grieve those lost in tent fire

As residents try to make sense of the tragedy, an official says the blaze that injured 80 was caused by carelessness.

Kuwaiti men pray over the remains of some of the 41 women and children who died in the fire before burying them at Sulaybikhat Cemetery.
Kuwaiti men pray over the remains of some of the 41 women and children who died in the fire before burying them at Sulaybikhat Cemetery.

JAHRA, KUWAIT // Distraught neighbours yesterday recounted the horrifying scenes that unfolded at a wedding party fire that killed 41 women and children on Saturday, as friends and family members of the 80 injured in the blaze gathered at the local hospital. Little remains of the tent at the scene of the fire in the tribal area of Jahra, west of Kuwait City. Yesterday, officials sifted through piles of clothes, food, and cutlery scattered across the blackened ground where just a few hours before, scores of women and children from the Zafeeri family celebrated a wedding.

A spokesman for the ministry of interior yesterday said the careless placement of the tent near houses hindered rescue efforts and could be to blame for the tragedy, but fire officials said it was too early to establish the cause of the blaze. A burnt-out lorry and piles of twisted metal chair frames were cordoned off by police as dozens of Kuwaitis passed through the area of the tragedy that has shocked Kuwait. Residents who live in the rows of houses that stand within a few metres of where the tent was erected - and which hampered rescue efforts - are still in disbelief that such a joyous occasion could have gone so horribly wrong.

"There were a couple of hundred women in the tent," said Abdullah al Zafeeri, the horror of what happened etched in his face as he sat in the lounge of the house next door to the disaster. "I heard the women screaming. Some children died in the arms of their mothers." Mr al Zafeeri's mother and sister are in hospital, and he doesn't know if they will be all right. "The bride wasn't here yet. She was getting prepared for the party with makeup and henna, and was due to arrive at 10pm." The fire department said they received the first emergency calls about 8.45pm. The fate of the bride has not been officially confirmed.

Mr al Zafeeri's cousin, Ibrahim al Enezi, said: "We saw many people die here, the bodies were piled up. We saw around 20 bodies outside the tent and the fire department was still collecting them from inside." Mohammed al Subaiy, an art student who lives in the neighbouring street, said: "I saw one old woman on her knees. Her legs were burnt but she held her hands up in the air and was praying. Men kept trying to get inside the tent, but the heat from the flames kept pushing them back. By the time the fire brigade got here, the tent had collapsed, and people were stuck inside."

Khaled al Sarhed, the manager of Jahra fire station who led the rescue operation, said: "When they put people in the ambulances, there were so many people and cars around the scene that they struggled to get out. When the fire started, women and children fought to get to the tent's exit and there was a huge crush. Many people died near the door when some people fell and others fought to get over the top of them."

About 16 fire engines arrived at the scene from four fire stations, the first within five minutes of getting the emergency call, Mr al Sarhed said. He said it is still too early to know how the fire started. Authorities are running DNA tests to identify charred bodies of the 35 women and six children killed in the blaze, Brig Gen Jassem al Mansouri said, according to the Associated Press. "The fire started so quickly, and a car beside the tent exploded," said Saud al Khaldi, a retired soldier who lives in the next street. "Around 20 ambulances started to arrive after 10 minutes, and people were helping by bringing the women to the hospital in their cars."

"Injured women were strewn across the ground. People were taking off their clothes to cover them because they had lost their own in the fire." Jahra is a conservative area of Kuwait. Many of the tribes who settled here were Bedouin nomads from the desert. Kuwaitis who have been denied citizenship, known locally as Bedouns, also make up a sizeable part of the population. The prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Ahmed al Sabah, the deputy speaker of the parliament, Abdullah Roumi, and the minister of health, Dr Hilal al Sayer, yesterday visited the 25 injured women who are still being held in Jahra hospital.

Sheikh Nasser commended the hospital's quick response to the catastrophe and said the government will provide full health care for the injured. Dr al Sayer said: "The emergency services were fantastic, within 35 minutes, the first cases started coming here and the staff arranged other beds in other hospitals too. Forty-one were completely charred and five or six are still critically ill with over 80 per cent burns," he said.

Families of the victims lined the hospital's corridors as nurses in white abayas and niqabs tended to the injured. One of the nurses who did not want to give her name said: "This was much crazier than anything I have ever seen before." A family member of some of the victims, Mohammed Bander, who is a nursing student, said: "Five of my cousins were trapped in the blaze. Three of them are in Jahra hospital, and I haven't heard anything about the other two. I fear that they have been burnt so badly, we won't be able to recognise them, and we are waiting for the DNA tests."

"I've been in the hospital since last night, and I haven't got a wink of sleep," he said. Faris al Zafeeri, another member of the tribe whose wife was in the tent, said: "My wife has second degree burns on her shoulder, elbow and back, but she knows first aid and she still tried to help the injured. She's here now, but I think she's going to be OK. "That was a terrible location for a wedding celebration; it was hemmed in by buildings on each side. They should not have held a party there."

Col Mohammad al Saber, a spokesman for the ministry of interior, said the tent was dangerously located between too many houses. "Despite constant warnings and recommendations that utmost caution be observed when setting up such gatherings, carelessness often leads to such tragedies. "Setting up tents in housing areas and between homes is extremely hazardous and will hinder rescue and response efforts in case of tragedy," he said, according to the state news agency.

Mr al Zafeeri, who is an emergency medical technician, said part of the problem was that the people did not know what to do with the victims at the scene. "I want the ministry of education to start teaching first aid in the schools. Why do we have classes in subjects like music? What's the point in that? It's not as important as emergency care." @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae