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Qatar mourns deadly mall fire on anniversary

Officials say fire safety has improved a year after blaze killed 19 people, but families still search for justice.

Last Modified: 28 May 2013 17:26
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Villaggio mall has reopened and a trial continues for individuals allegedly responsible for the fire [Reuters]

Doha, Qatar - As rescue workers pulled her 15-month-old son from a burning mall in Doha, Qatar, Zareena Solomon watched the scene before her, almost like a movie, finding it hard to reconcile the sight with reality.

One year ago on Tuesday, emergency responders pulled Solomon's son, Umar Emeran, still in diapers - along with a dozen more children - from the roof of the city's luxury Villaggio Mall.

Flames never reached the daycare centre they had been playing in, but the thick noxious smoke was enough, and by the end of the day, 19 expatriates - 13 children, four nursery staff and two firefighters - had died.

The victims of the uncommon tragedy hailed from more than a dozen countries, including Canada, Spain, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa and China.

The global community also wondered, how, in a country with the world's highest per capita income, diplomatic aspirations and plans to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, officials were unable to manage a simple rescue response to a fire that never should have raged so far out of control.

Vigils were held in the days after the tragedy, and government officials promised transparency and swift answers. Qatar's Heir Apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited the grieving families, offering condolences and promising justice.

"The Crown Prince was very compassionate and supportive," said Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar, whose two-year-old daughter Evana was killed in the blaze. "He promised us that, no matter who was responsible for this tragedy, they would be held accountable. He told us that no-one was above the law and that justice would be served."

Perfect storm

On Tuesday, one full year after the fire, a much smaller crowd gathered at Aspire Park in Doha to remember the loss of life, bringing flowers and candles, and releasing 19 balloons into the air - one for each of the victims.

Parents of the children who died urged Qatari residents to "pause and remember" their suffering.

They also renewed calls for the Qatari government to make public all details of its investigation into the fire. "Despite our numerous requests, and those from our governments, we are still to receive the official report into the investigation," they said in a joint statement. "We still do not know what actually happened and how it happened."

So far, the committee that investigated the fire has only released highlights of its findings, concluding that the ordeal was a perfect storm of negligence and lack of preparedness on all sides.

Relatives of the dead say they are still waiting for justice [AFP]

In its report, the committee found a "lack of adherence to required laws, systems, and measure by all concerned parties to different degree(s). This includes adherence to design, license, and safety conditions, which contributed to (the) Villagio catastrophe".

The technical report also debunked rumours that the fire was caused by Syrians loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad, saying it was clearly not a premeditated act.

The spark that set everything off was a simple short circuit in a fluorescent tube light in the upstairs storeroom of a Nike shop. But that flame was fanned by highly toxic, flammable paint that the mall had been warned about for years, according to court testimony. One Civil Defence officer said that the paint, once ignited, caused the fire and smoke to spread uncontrollably.

Civil Defence has declined repeated requests to comment about the fire, or to clarify what steps it has taken since to shore up safety standards in Qatar. 

But officers did admit in court that their firefighters were poorly trained. And a malfunctioning sprinkler system, no emergency lighting and no updated floor plans only made the rescue effort more chaotic.

For many government institutions, the fire served as a wake-up call. Within weeks, stricter regulations were imposed on nurseries in the country. Licensed facilities were only allowed to keep children on the ground floor, were required to have multiple exits and ordered to carry out regular fire drills.

Other violators 

Civil Defence has also taken a sterner approach over the past year, ordering every building in Qatar to be re-inspected and even closing the country's largest mall for several weeks until it had fully complied with their requirements. In an eleventh-hour inspection, it also refused to allow Qatar's new multi-billion dollar airport to open on April 1, citing a lack of adherence to safety standards.

But that isn't to say the issues that contributed to the fire have all been resolved.

"We are really serious on working to provide a secure environment," said Olaf Kindt, director of Qatar's largest mall, City Center, saying that instructions from Civil Defence can be confusing and frustrating. For example, when Kindt's mall was shuttered for three weeks in 2012 for non-compliance, officials were unable to tell him whether some fire exit doors needed replacing entirely or just repairing.

"The rules and regulations are changing. We do the best we can from our side to observe the regulations, but there are items that are a bit difficult," he explained. "Sometimes, we don't know 100 percent [what we're supposed to do] and we don't get a clear answer from Civil Defence, maybe because they are also in between, they are also developing."

A senior Qatari fire engineer and safety manager who works for the government - and asked not be named to preserve their job security - agreed.

He said there had been big changes at the Civil Defence department in the past year and that, while the government branch was working hard to raise standards, the department remained a very long way from where it needed to be.

Nathan Goddard, a British health and safety engineer who has worked in Qatar for 15 years, said there were issues not just with regulation, but also with implementation and building maintenance across the board.

"It's a general problem, not just in Qatar, but across the Gulf - some companies will do it and some companies say they're going to do it, but when you look into it deeply you find things like fire alarms not working properly and fire exits locked," he said. "Sometime it's because of the cost - and sometimes it's just the people they employ who are not competent enough to be doing it. That's the bottom line."

Another point of fact: The cause of the vast majority of fires in Qatar has gone undetermined for at least the past four years, according to Qatar Statistics Authority figures.

This could be in part because there are not enough qualified people to make the necessary determinations. We do know, though, that the main cause of the small percentage of fires that could be determined were electrical short-circuits, as was the case with Villaggio.

Court case

As Qatar looks to strengthen its infrastructure and ensure such a disaster never happens again, court proceedings to determine who is at fault for the 19 deaths are ongoing.

Among the defendants are Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's Ambassador to Belgium, and his wife Iman Al-Kuwari, daughter of Qatar's culture minister, the co-owners of the Gympanzee daycare centre where the children died.

 Due to the sacrifice of our children, it [fire safety] has become a matter of importance. Their death helped fix fire protection measures in Qatar.

Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar, father of victim

Gympanzee was licensed as a mall play area, and did not have permission to operate as a nursery. Prosecutors and parents say fire regulations would have been stricter and the emergency response more swift had the facility been licensed as a nursery.

Also implicated in the trial is Villaggio's owner, Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, as well as the mall's manager, assistant manager and head of security.

The final defendant is the official from the ministry of business and trade who was responsible for Gympanzee's commercial permit.

The prosecutor is calling on the judge to find all seven defendants guilty of involuntary manslaughter, pointing out that, given the size and popularity of the mall, the number of victims could easily have been multiplied, and that power and money should not absolve culpability in this case. The defendants also face the possibility of paying some $30m in punitive damages to each of the victims' inheritors.

A verdict is expected on June 20, 2013, although appeals could keep the case going on for years. Relatives of the victims have expressed low expectations, especially after the case got off to a slow start due to the repeated absence of some defendants.

Looking for closure

In the meantime, family members of the victims continue to look for closure, and hope the country has learned its lessons.

"If it weren't for the death of our loved ones, the issue of fire protection and safety measures in Qatar would not have been brought to the forefront of the government's attention," Antonios said. "Due to the sacrifice of our children, it has become a matter of importance. Their death helped fix fire protection measures in Qatar."

For the Emerans, the loss of Umar caused an unbearable quiet to settle over their home. "He took up all of our time," his father remembered. "All of a sudden, you have an infinite amount of time."

"It was so quiet," his wife added.

Two months ago, a new face arrived in the Emeran home, when Solomon gave birth to Maryam, who is helping to heal the cracks in their family.

Says Solomon, a new mother again: "She hasn't changed anything about the way I feel about Umar, but she has come with her own blessings and love. She has filled me with a love I thought I could never have again."

Omar Chatriwala and Shabina S Khatri are the co-founders of Doha News. This article is based on their in-depth report, "Villaggio Fire: A Tragedy Silenced"

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Al Jazeera
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