Manama: Qatar was on Tuesday reeling under the shock of its worst tragedy in modern times after 19 people, including 13 children, were killed in a blaze at an ultra-modern shopping mall in the capital, Doha.
Messages of condolences and sympathy have flooded the social networks as Qataris and expatriates have been offering prayers for the victims and highlighting the courage of the firefighters in their attempts to overcome daunting challenges to save lives.
The interior ministry said that it was alerted about the blaze at the Villagio mall at 11:03 am and that members of its agencies reached the site within minutes.
However, they became aware that 20 children and staff were trapped in the Gympanzee nursery only at 11:34 and firefighters had to break into the area through the roof.
“Since access was impossible through the gates of the mall, the roof had to be opened to rescue the trapped children,” the minister of state for interior affairs said at a press conference. “The thick smoke emanating from the fire prevented the firefighters from accessing the nursery through the corridor. Besides, the heat was unbearable making their task even more difficult. We tried our best, but when we got there, the children were trapped inside. We are very sorry for what happened. We tried as much as we could to save these people,” he said, quoted by Qatari media.
Two firefighters died in the effort and the local media identified them as a Palestinian and a Moroccan.
“Mahmood Haidar, a 27-yar-old Palestinian, was part of the Civil Defence firefighting team that rushed to the mall after the news of the fire was broken to them,” local daily The Peninsula reported. “He and his colleagues entered the nursery while the fire was raging. Braving the inferno, Mahmood saved two lives. However, after handing them to paramedics, he returned to the nursery where the fire had become more intense with clouds of thick black smoke billowing. He was not lucky this time and suffocated.”
His colleague, Houssam Chahboun, a 22-year-old Moroccan, also died saving people who were caught in the blaze, the daily said.
No official list of the victims has been released, but reports said that it included three New Zealanders, four Spanish children and a French child.
A New Zealand report said that the three Kiwi victims were two-year-old triplets Lillie, Willsher and Jackson who “were the world for their mother Jane Weekes.”
The triplets had turned two last month and have recently started going to childcare three times a week.
In Madrid, a foreign ministry spokeswoman confirmed that four of the dead children are Spanish while in Paris, Yamina Benguigui, the minister in charge of French expatriates, said that a French child died in the blaze. “It is with great sorrow that I confirm that a French child aged three is among the victims,” she said in a statement.
Three of the four nursery teachers who died in the blaze were from the Philippines and one was from South Africa.
Crescente Relacion, the Philippine ambassador, identified his fellow countrywomen as Maribel Orozco, Margie Yecyec and Julie Anne Soco.
The Peninsula said that the three teachers were new in Qatar and had visit and business visas while their work permits were being processed.
Reports said that some of the mall members apparently did not understand the seriousness of the situation when visitors expressed their concern over the non-stop blaring of the fire alarm.
According to Gulf Times, a Western woman who was inside the Villaggio Mall when the fire broke out said she was in the play area with two of her children when she heard the fire alarm for the first time at around 11am.
She said she brought it to the notice of the staff around her, but they laughed and said: “This happens often.”
According to the woman, the alarm has been on for several minutes before the blaze was first noticed by the staff and they subsequently alerted the visitors.
“When they realised a fire has broken out, they behaved quite unprofessionally by yelling and screaming, maybe due to the seriousness and urgency of the matter,” she was quoted as saying. “But such a response by the staff to a life-threatening and serious situation as this was quite unprofessional as it could have triggered panic and even a stampede. They showed an utter lack of training. The security people should not have dismissed the alarm as a false one, but instead investigated its cause. I found there was no effective system in place to meet such an emergency.”
At the official level, Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the crown prince, ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the causes and circumstances of the fire.
Abdullah Bin Hamad Al Attiyah, the Chairman of the Administrative Control and Transparency Authority, will head the committee that includes several experts, Qatar News Agency (QNA) said.
The panel will have to submit its findings within one week.
However, in the meantime, questions about safety standards have emerged, mainly in the print media.
Writing in Qatar Tribune, Ajit Kumar Jha said that “the tragedy must make us raise certain questions.”
“How safe are our kids in Doha? How secure are fire hydrants and the sprinklers all over the city, in schools, in malls, in public buildings like cinema halls? How protected are we and our children in our homes? How safe is the public transport, especially the buses and other vehicles carrying our kids to school? The Villaggio tragedy must be seriously investigated. We need to find out what went wrong? How could we have averted the tragedy?”
“While we condole the dead and sympathise with the families that have lost dear ones let us all pledge to make Doha a safe, secure and sound place for ourselves and especially for our children,” he wrote.
In its editorial, The Peninsula also wanted answers to pressing questions.
“As the smoke settles, we will be left grappling with a number of questions,” the editorial said. “What caused such a huge toll, especially since the blaze happened at a time and place that should have facilitated an emergency response? Was the safety system at the mall in accordance with the law? Was the babycare centre, where the blaze is said to have originated and resulted in the huge toll of children, adequately equipped to prevent and contain the blaze and located in a place that was accessible during an emergency?”
But for Qataris, the most pressing issue now is to offer compassion and assist the families of the victims as well as the 17 people being treated for injuries.
“We need to know the victims’ families and go to offer them our condolences and support,” Khalid Al Jameeli wrote on his Twitter account. “They are all foreigners and expatriates and have no family in Qatar, except Qataris. We are all ready to go to them.”
Houda said that the week has been tragic for children in the region.
“We had 55 children massacred in Syria and now 13 who died in the Villagio blaze,” she wrote. “May God grant their families and all of us fortitude to bear the tragic loss.”