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By Shabina S. Khatri, Omar Chatriwala and Julia Mills
With reporting from Riham Sheble and Victoria Scott
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We dedicate this publication to all of the families who have suffered through this past year with the loss of their loved ones and have been given little in the way of closure. Thank you for sharing your stories. Your strength is an inspiration. Our gratitude also goes out to the Qatar community for the outpouring of support, information and feedback you have given Doha News as we report on this and other important stories. Finally, thank you to our parents for their support and our children, Aya and Esa, for giving up time with us as we dedicated ourselves to keeping Qatar up to date on the past year's events - not just during the workday, but also at night, on weekends and during vacations. We love you. - Omar and Shabina
Some 365 days later, we can answer some of those questions with certainty. Other answers will take more time, as the court deliberates over who to hold accountable for a toll that, for all intents and purposes, seems to have been entirely preventable. For the last year, we have kept you up-to-date on all Villaggiorelated developments. We've encountered a number of obstacles along the way, in reporting on the trial, speaking to stakeholders in the case and navigating the emotionally choppy waters of a deep tragedy with as much sensitivity as possible. Sadly, despite strong coverage in the days after the fire, the rest of Qatar’s news media appears to have fallen silent. And, despite making bold promises in the days after the fire, Qatar’s officials have largely stopped talking about the issue. If there is any silver lining in this tragedy, it has been the good that has come out of the community. In the aftermath of the fire, the tears shed, prayers offered, flowers given, hands held, food cooked, and solidarity and kind words expressed by so many residents and locals to those who lost their loved ones transcended the usual socioeconomic and cultural markers that keep us apart. The tragedy has also raised the bar on expectations of safety, among Qataris and expats alike. Unfortunately, the meeting of those expectations has fallen short in the past 12 months, with Civil Defense applying an uneven and unexplained protocol in deciding which businesses are up to code and which haven't made the cut.
It has been one full year since the Villaggio Mall fire, one of Qatar's worst tragedies in recent memory. Not just because 19 people passed away that day, but because most of the victims were small children in a daycare center that wasn’t evacuated, and no one inside it survived. The raw grief felt on May 28, 2012, has given way to anger and a lot of questions. Namely, how could this happen, and who will be held responsible? The relatives of the victims - those left behind - are also very much on our minds. How are they coping, one year later? And, of course: how safe are we now? Could something like this happen again?
For many, life has returned to normal after the fire, now that Villaggio mall reopened. But for others, it has left a gaping hole that only transparency, accountability and time will help to heal.
-SHABINA S. KHATRI, EDITOR, DOHA NEWS
C HAPTER 1
As images spread across the world - of thick smoke billowing from the mall, of firefighters looking confused and unprepared, of parents breaking down in tears of grief, of lifeless children being pulled from the roof - the question on everyone’s lips was, “why?”
Photo courtesy Ministry of Interior
S ECTION 1
old Umar Emeran also happened to be absent that Sunday but both were present on that fateful Monday morning. For most of Qatar, the peace of that mundane morning was broken around 11am, when the first reports of a fire at Villaggio started coming in. There was one tweet, and then another, and then a crooked mobile phone photo taken from inside a car, with the message: “What is going on at Villaggio? Lots of smoke!” But at Villaggio, the disaster really began at least 15 minutes earlier, when a fluorescent tube light short-circuited in a closet. The bulb was cheap, commonly used in Qatar, and the cause of many of the fires here. In this instance, it was located in the upstairs storage area of the Nike shop. The plastic components of the lamp overheated, causing the bulb to burst and send smoldering pieces below, onto boxes filled with shoes, sports jerseys and other gear. By the time Nike shop employees realized what’s happening, it seemed to be too late. An attempt to quell a fast-growing blaze yielded no result, and the smoke began to spread. News about the fire was spreading, too, and perhaps fastest on social media. “Ahem, reporting live from Ground Zero. The fire isn't as big as it seems. In fact the alarms are off,” Alim Salahud-din tells Doha News. But then he follows up: “Fire is getting larger.”
Eighteen-month-old Evana Antonios woke up cranky on May 28 of last year. She didn’t even want to get out of bed, her mom recalls. But, as she had done almost every weekday for the past three months, Manal Murgus dropped her daughter off at Gympanzee, a daycare at Villaggio mall, and went to work. Elena Travesedo went shopping at Villaggio after dropping three of her four children off at Gympanzee - Almudena, 7, Camilo, 5, and Alfonso, 2 years old. Yolanda Mascaraque did the same, leaving 7-year-old Isabel Vela in the play area. Shameega Charles, a Gympanzee employee, reported to work that morning after spending the weekend Skyping with her family in South Africa. She had turned 29 three days earlier. Three-and-a-half-year old Hana Sharabati had stayed home the day before because she wasn’t feeling well. Fifteen-month-
Phone footage from inside the mall shows shoppers and staff looking more perplexed than scared.
teacher, two assistants and an accountant were spending their morning. An expat who was working in the Via Domo luxury section of the mall at the time recalls not taking the fire seriously when she heard about it. "We were led to believe that the VIP section was going to be OK. 'It's far enough away,' people were heard muttering, but what people didn't realize was the fire was raging out of control. It was now in the roof space, it was in the vents - all areas we mutually shared. It was starting to drift through to our area,” she said, asking to remain anonymous to protect her job. As she and her boss evacuate the mall, she remembers many were still inside, hovering, lingering, taking photos. She recounts:
G ALLERY 1.1 The Mall Fills With Smoke
@Gigi66666: Some Random Dude, Posing In The Middle Of The Fire In Villagio. pic.twitter.com/JZDIdgSN
“Just as we made to leave, local boys had covered their faces with their scarves and were taking pictures of themselves in the smoke next to the luxury cars that you could now barely see. The only thing that you could see was their reversing lights. They were removing the cars from the building, before us! As we went to leave the building, the cars were being removed. As we got out to the carpark, the cars were already waiting at the traffic lights.”
Meanwhile, smoke spread quickly through the mall’s air vents and along the ceiling, growing thicker and more toxic after making contact with flammable paint used to evoke in shoppers’ minds an idyllic day in an Italian hill town. Directly adjacent to the Nike storeroom – ground zero – is a hallway, a security monitoring office and Gympanzee, where 13 children, a
Elsewhere in the mall, evacuation efforts were also halfhearted. Alarms could be heard in some stores, but few shoppers were taking them seriously, until they either saw the smoke or heard panicked people yelling at everyone to exit quickly. “Got out of Villaggio before fire broke out - was left in changing room at Zara and staff left without telling me. Came out and store was empty!” tweeted Ellora Coupe. Some witnesses guess the fire is coming from the food court, but other say they saw actual flames at Nike and the nearby GoSport shop. Reflecting on the ordeal, the mall employee said:
“I live near Villaggio and for hours after I got home the sound of sirens rang out... I often think, ‘Could I have done something, had I been made aware of what was happening that day?’ I guess now I will never know."
S ECTION 2
Fire officials had already arrived on the scene, some just moments after the first sightings of smoke. More emergency workers pour in by the minute. It’s 12:05pm, and the Ministry of Interior announces that everything’s OK. There are no serious injuries, but some people are being treated for smoke inhalation, the government entity tweeted. Traffic in the area is horrendous, due to the incoming emergency response vehicles, as well as police roadblocks and exiting shoppers. And the smoke appears to be dissipating. But appearances can be deceiving, and everything is not OK. On-site, the rescue effort is chaotic and poorly trained firefighters are battling to put out a blaze with no emergency lighting, a malfunctioning sprinkler system and no floor plans. Outside the mall entrance, as a crowd of shoppers look on, Gympanzee co-owner Iman Al Kuwari is trying to get Civil Defense to understand: there are children inside! Raghda Al Kabbani, whose 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hana Sharabati is at Gympanzee, is yelling the same. A number of frantic relatives are pressing in around the entrances of Villaggio, but none are allowed in, with the exception of Orosco’s husband Aban. He knew the way to Gympanzee, so firefighters suited him up to go in, but the heat and the smoke force him to turn back. “It was completely dark, like you’re closing your eyes,” Aban recalls. “I couldn’t see anything. We only reached GoSport. I felt hot and some air – like a fan. Very hot.”
Inside Gympanzee, minutes slip by and Maribel Orosco, a 29year-old accountant, calls her husband, Louie Aban, to tell him about the fire. According to one account, the nursery staff was told by security that everything was under control. But at this point, 10 minutes past 11am, the smoke in the narrow hallway leading to the daycare is already too thick and too hot to move the kids. Orosco calls her husband again, asking him to hurry, to come and help them. But before he arrives, she calls once more, this time to say goodbye. “She told me she had to ‘let go,’” Aban testified in court months later, adding that his wife's breathing sounded labored. “I told her, ‘don’t.’” Amid a worsening situation, Gympanzee employee Julie Ann Soco also calls her husband in the Philippines. She tells him that she is staying with the children, against his advice.
Meanwhile, Grace O, mother of two-year-old Zeinah Aouani, was desperately trying to get people to help find her daughter. “I even told one firefighter, ‘I can give you money, please go check the nursery,” she later explains to an American newspaper.
Two hours in, with limited equipment and struggling to access the nursery’s location, rescue workers decide to cut through the roof of the mall to get to Gympanzee. “That entry was from the top of the complex. Time was really critical and the teams took some time because the maps were not immediately available,” Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, Minister of State for Interior Affairs, explains at a press conference that evening. Firefighters rush in, and start to carry out the trapped inhabitants. And for a moment, there is a sigh of relief. “Ok they are finally getting the kids out. Oh my god. #villagio,” tweets @SyrianBint at 12:56pm. The Ministry of Interior, meanwhile, sends two tweets:
“Firefighters and other security personnel are working to contain the fire at Villagio. They have already evacuated all persons in the mall.”
M OVIE 1.1 Confusion in the fire
Raghda Al Kabbani, mother of three-and-a-half-year-old Hana, tries to explain the location of the nursery to rescue workers. “They just looked at me like a crazy person who doesn’t know what’s going on,” says O, who initially thought the smoke was due to a small fire. One had taken place during a visit she had made to the mall earlier that week.
“#VillagioFire Firefighters have reached the main source of fire at Villagio and surrounded the area with all means to extinguish fire.”
S ECTION 3
He recalls assuming that the nursery children would be huddled outside, waiting for their parents to collect them:
“Eventually, it became apparent to everyone that the children were still stuck inside the burning building, and my mother lost it even more. After what seemed like forever, we got word that they were bringing the children out. Indeed, the first fireman to come down from that flight of stairs was carrying my brother’s body, his little arms hanging out on his sides, dangling as they rushed him to the paramedics.”
Despite the MOI’s assurances, rumors and blurry images begin circulating on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, claiming dozens of people have died in the blaze. Some of the parents standing by see their children coming out of the roof of the mall, and hope against hope that they will be OK. Paramedics work furiously on children and firefighters alike. It would be another five hours before the government officially explains what happened. But some – like the mother of 15-month-old Umar Emeran, who watched from the sidelines as EMTs covered her son with a blue sheet - were already facing the cold reality wordlessly. She was joined by her other son, 19-year-old Ibraheem Emeran, who raced to Villaggio when his best friend called to tell him smoke was coming from the area.
Hossam Chahboune, a Moroccan firefighter, was found by a colleague lying lifeless on the floor of the nursery, “holding two children in his arms.” “The other (Iranian) firefighter was barely alive when we found him,” Abdel Khaleq al-Huwari tells journalists. “We tried to save him, but he died.” Although the fire never reached the nursery, the thick noxious smoke was enough. No one trapped there survives the day. Another firefighter, Amran Mohsen, explains how the children died. ”Five in the ambulance, three at the hospital and the rest right at the spot,” he says.
Most of the families do not find out right away. Anyone looking for answers about their loved ones was pointed to Hamad Hospital, where they were left to beg for updates.
“My kid was the last one,” she says. Confirmation - and the death of hope - finally comes when the relatives are taken to the deceased themselves. Almost all of the bodies have black soot on them, but no other marks. “It looked like she was sleeping,” Hana’s mother Al Kabbani says. “They gave us the wrong impression that there were children alive,” Evana’s mother recalls through tears. “They made us feel hopeful for nothing. They should’ve told us from the start that everyone at the nursery was dead.” Aban says he didn’t find out his wife had passed away until 6pm that day:
“I gave them a picture of my wife and identifications, the jewelry she was wearing… All information was taken, but no one confirmed to me that they had found my wife. Some of the parents already knew that their children were dead, but I was still praying at that time.
M OVIE 1.2 Rescue Efforts
A child is airlifted from the Villaggio Mall fire in Doha, Qatar. Video by Brian Candy At this point, hope is still alive for many. But it ebbs as each family is eventually directed to the morgue and asked to produce pictures of their loved ones. They are then instructed to identify the bodies of their children and spouses by looking at pictures of them on an iPad. “All the kids from the nursery were dead,” recalls Zeinah’s mom. “They asked me, ‘Is this your kid? Is this your kid?’”
I didn’t lose hope. Then, they took me to the mortuary to see if they could find my wife. They pulled out the adults one by one. I identified the three teachers first. The last one was my wife. I just cried.”
The mother of 3-year-old Youssef Chata did not hear that a fire had taken place at Villaggio until after 6pm. The 32-yearold French national was in Doha visiting her parents and recovering from giving birth via a caesarean delivery some two
weeks before the tragedy. It wasn’t until relatives whisked her to the hospital and a nurse wordlessly escorted her to the morgue did she learn about her son’s fate. Even before the whole truth is shared with the public, it’s understood that today is a national tragedy. Just after 7pm, the Ministry of Interior finally starts to explain things to the media at a press conference. It’s confirmed: six boys, seven girls and six adults - four female Gympanzee employees and two male firefighters - have died of smoke inhalation. Al Thani, the minister of state, says:
“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.”
manager, the assistant manager and the assistant director of security. Meanwhile, the country prepares to mourn.
Seventeen more people were treated for smoke inhalation at Hamad Hospital: 15 Civil Defense officers and two mall security guards. All were released within days of the fire. The government chooses not to make public the names of those killed, but their relatives and friends do. Later that night, Qatar’s attorney general announces the arrest of some five people associated with the tragedy, including Villaggio mall’s owner, the co-owner of Gympanzee, the mall
S ECTION 4
✦ Evana Antonios, 2 years old, Egypt/Sudan ✦ Mahmoud Haidar, Iran ✦ Hossam Chahboune, 22 years old, Morocco ✦ Shameega Charles, 29 years old, South Africa ✦ Maribel Orosco, 29 years old, Philippines ✦ Margie Yecyec, Philippines ✦ Julie Ann Soco, Philippines
T HE N AMES OF THE V ILLAGGIO F IRE V ICTIMS ✦ Ye Mengling, 3.5 years old, China ✦ Hana Sharabati, 3.5 years old, Canada/Saudi Arabia ✦ Umar Emeran, 15 months old, South Africa ✦ Isabel Vela, 7 years old, Spain ✦ Almudena, 7, Camilo, 5, and Alfonso, 2 years old, Travesedo (siblings), Spain ✦ Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes (triplets), 2 years old, New Zealand ✦ Zeinah Aouani, 2 years old, United States ✦ Youssef Chata, 3 years old, France/Egypt
The Weekes Triplets
Zeinah Aouani Hana Sharabati
Ye Mengling Mahmoud Haidar
Hossam Chahboune Evana Antonios Youssef Chata The Gympanzee Teachers Travasedo Siblings Isabel Vela
1 of 13
I NTERACTIVE 1.1 Faces of the fallen
C HAPTER 2
On Tuesday, May 29, 2012, Qatar residents awoke with heavy hearts. Nineteen vibrant lives had left the world, and in a place as small as Doha, everyone was somehow connected to the tragedy.
Photo by Omar Chatriwala
S ECTION 1
The Day After
Also on this day, a packed crowd attended a mass that was held at the Catholic church for the four Spanish victims: Isabel Vela, 7, and siblings Almudena, 7, Camilo, 5, and Alfonso, 2, Travesedo. Their bodies were later flown home to be buried.
G ALLERY 2.1 Vigil for the victims
Friends, acquaintances and strangers rushed forth to comfort the grieving. Mogammad Moeneeb Emeran, father of 15-month-old Umar, recalls his next-door neighbor opening up his home to receive well wishers, serving them as a host. “We didn’t even know him very well,” Umar’s mother, Zareena Solomon, said. Emeran, who would go to Abu Hamour Cemetery to bury his son on this day, said his Qatari colleague from Qatar Petroleum jumped in and took care of all the funeral logistics. He even washed Umar’s body with his own hands, following the Islamic tradition of preparing a person for burial. Well-attended funeral prayers were also held there for several of the other Muslim victims on Tuesday, including Mahmoud Haidar and Hossam Chahboune, the two firefighters; and 3and-a-half-year-old Hana Sharabati.
Hundreds of people from across Qatar gathered at Aspire Park to say goodbye. Photo by Omar Chatriwala
“If anyone cries, do it with joy, because they have reached the sky,” the mother of the siblings later said during their funeral in Madrid.
At least three vigils were held on Tuesday, the largest one at Aspire Park. There, hundreds of residents of all nationalities and all walks of life mourned together, placing flowers, candles and notes at the base of a pole that read:
RIP Fallen Heroes, RIP Dead Angels, RIP Respected Teachers, WE LOVE YOU.
Meanwhile, cleanup began in earnest at Villaggio Mall, much to the dismay of some residents, who wondered how a proper investigation would be conducted. The mall would remain closed for the next three-and-a-half months.
M OVIE 2.1 Farewell to the Triplets
Red-eyed Jane and Martin Weekes of New Zealand, who lost their two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher, attended the vigil, clutching their children’s favorite stuffed animals. Also in attendance to offer condolences were high-level Qatari officials, including Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al-Thani and Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, Qatar’s Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage and father to Gympanzee co-owner Iman Al Kuwari. The minister said that it was a day of sorrow for everyone Qataris and expats alike, adding that the fact that a diverse segment of the community attended the vigil should be noted. He said:
“It proves we like each other, we love each other.”
Friends dedicated the famous All Blacks haka to the Weekes family. Video by Gazanfarulla Khan In addition to grief, fear also hung in the air that day, as residents jumped at reports of minor fires around town, including at the Qatar Aeronautical College, in a shopping complex in Mansoura, and at the Fatima bent Waleed bin Al Muqeera Primary School for girls, where some students fainted from the commotion.
The skittishness would continue for months to come, but unfortunately, so would the fires, which are an everyday occurrence in Qatar. Three other fire-related deaths also took place in 2012, according to Ministry of Interior figures.
S ECTION 2
Print media, which was unusually vocal during this time period (but would later fall silent on the issue), also criticized television and radio stations for not covering the tragedy in real-time. Qatar TV’s managing director hit back by saying the fire should not have been treated as a spectacle: “What happened is not a football match to be aired on TV.” Meanwhile, Qatar’s Heir Apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, began visiting the grieving families, offering condolences and promising justice.
After a day of mourning, during which residents focused on saying goodbye, on comforting one another and on trying to make sense of it all, the calls for accountability began. Saleh al-Kawari, editor-in-chief of Al-Raya, said in an editorial: “It is negligence that resembles a premeditated murder. This is a real catastrophe.” Ajit Kumar Jha, then-editor at the Qatar Tribune, wrote:
“Imagine, these could have been your kids, our kids, whom we take with us to school, for shopping, for a movie, for ice-skating to Villaggio. 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?”
“His Highness, the Crown Prince was very compassionate and supportive,” said Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar, father of Evana. “He promised us that no matter who was responsible for this tragedy, they will be held accountable. He told us that no one was above the law and that justice would be served.” In the days following the fire, Gympanzee also went on the offensive after it emerged that it was registered as a mall play area rather than a nursery. That issue would later be argued over by defense lawyers and the prosecuting attorney for hours in court. Also in June, a committee organized to investigate the cause of the Villaggio fire determined that the ordeal was a perfect storm of negligence and lack of preparedness on all sides. The full report has not been released one year on, but highlights of it were published by the state’s Qatar News Agency.
Among them: 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 rumors that the fire was caused by Syrians loyal to embattled President Bashar Al Assad, saying it was clearly not a premeditated act. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Affairs took the tragedy as a wake-up call, sending memos to all nursery owners that it would be auditing their creches to ensure they complied with government requirements. It stated:
“Upper floors in nurseries are to be converted for administration purposes only, within three months from June 1, 2012. In the event that the requirements are not met as announced, the necessary legal measures will be taken with regard to the non-compliant nurseries.”
With summer in full force and Villaggio closed last year, residents turned to Qatar’s other malls for entertainment. However, in mid-June, two weeks after the fire, Civil Defense closed City Center, Qatar’s largest mall, for safety violations. It also warned the nation’s private and public companies, hotels, apartment buildings and restaurants to shore up their fire prevention and safety measures - or face immediate closure. Institutions found to be in violation of code in terms of their alarm, ventilation and fire devices, emergency exits and training of personnel could be closed for up to 30 days, officials said. City Center told shoppers it would be closed for the day, and then the weekend. But it took the mall nearly a month to get approvals. When it reopened, many of the kiosks crowding mall hallways had been removed. Six new emergency exits were added to the mall, and aisleways within stores like Carrefour and Home Centre were reportedly widened. Despite rumors, Landmark Mall remained open, though its cinema was temporarily closed for safety violations. In August, media reports suggested that Villaggio mall would reopen in time for Eid. In response to the news, the parents of the 13 children killed in the fire issued a joint statement calling for a boycott of the facility. Citing an absence of information about safety reforms made to the mall, no offer of financial compensation from its owners and no government updates on the fire investigation, the par22
By September, most nurseries had complied, though many complained about a shortage of space and said they found the directive to be arbitrary and unnecessary. Nursery owners were also told they would receive further instructions about new stricter health, hygiene, safety and academic requirements, but they have yet to introduced.
ents called the potential opening “outrageous, hurtful and indefensible.” The letter read:
“The owners and operators of Villaggio should not be allowed to go back to ‘business as usual’ without having addressed the needs and concerns of the families they devastated. This is the equivalent of sweeping a crime under the rug and we won’t stand for it.”
The mall, ultimately, did not receive approval from Civil Defense to reopen by Eid.
S ECTION 3
firefighters who perished, who are not only someone’s child but also leave behind children of their own.”
In the months to follow, the court proceedings would be postponed three more times because of the absence of Gympanzee co-owner Iman Al Kuwari, who had moved to Belgium with her family after the fire, as her husband Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani began his post as Qatar’s ambassador there. The months of postponement caused much consternation for those who had lost loved ones, and were anxious for resolution. Many Qatar residents also expressed concern at the delays, which they said called into question the effectiveness of the country’s legal system. But the issue appears to be much bigger than this one case. A report issued around this time found that Qatar’s courts are severely backlogged. In 2011, one-fifth of the 86,980 cases filed in Qatar’s courts were not resolved, an increase of 5.4 percent from 2010. The report attributed the delays to an archaic system that has not been updated since 1990, when the country’s population consisted of half a million people; but also to the court procedures that allow for lawyers to employ stalling tactics, including in the Villaggio fire case. Meanwhile, in November of last year, the Emir made one of his first public acknowledgments of the fire. At the opening of
Weeks later, on Sept. 6, the trial to determine criminal responsibility for the fire deaths commenced. However, the hearing was postponed after some of the defendants failed to turn up in court. Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 20, Villaggio mall did reopen to the public, but offered no information about what changes were made to the facility to make it a safer place. Qatar received the news with an ambivalence that continues to this day. As people began heading back to the mall, Jane Weekes expressed her pain to Doha News:
“One of the hardest things about losing a child or children is how quickly the world seems to return to normal whilst ours remains shattered. This will equally be the case for the families of the 4 teachers and 2
the 41st session of the Advisory Council, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said:
“Lessons must be learned from the mistakes, such as what happened earlier this year in the Villaggio Mall, since human errors and accidents cannot be prevented, but necessary precautions and preventive measures could be taken to avoid them or at least mitigate the damage caused by unavoidable occurrences.”
Meanwhile, testimony heard during the fire case showed that the government had been fining Villaggio mall repeatedly since 2008 for using a highly toxic, flammable paint in its mall decorations. According to one Civil Defense officer, the paint, once ignited, caused the fire and smoke to spread quickly. Sprinklers would have stopped the smoke, but they didn’t appear to be functioning. Additionally, Villaggio officials did not respond to requests from the fire alarm and sprinkler system companies to perform much-needed maintenance on the mall equipment, as recently as the week of the fire. Officials also testified that firefighters were not properly trained to handle the fire.
As the trial inched along, it emerged that Hamad Medical Corp. was being investigated by a worldwide healthcare accrediting body following a complaint filed by Jane and Martin Weekes, the parents of the two-year-old triplets who died in the fire. The complaint included a number of alleged failings that Jane Weekes said prompted the couple to feel “let down in what was the worst time of our lives.” Among the grievances:
• Despite reassurances, the triplets were not embalmed properly, meaning their bodies had deteriorated by the time they arrived home in New Zealand; • Lillie was still being treated when she reached the hospital and her parents were not told she had died until they were asked to identify her in the morgue; and • Non-nursing staff assigned to stay with the families were unable to offer any practical help, only providing empty reassurances.
At later hearings, the focus turned to Gympanzee and whether it violated the terms of its commercial license. Documentation shows that Gympanzee was licensed by the Ministry of Business and Trade for six business activities, including as a playroom for children. But parents of children killed in the fire testified that the business operated as a daycare. To the panel of judges, they presented receipts, monthly contracts and photos of signage and literature of Gympanzee referring to itself as a nursery. The distinction is important, parents told Doha News, because if it was a properly licensed nursery, Civil Defense officials would have been aware that there were children inside of Villaggio and worked to get them out quickly. Previously, firefighters said they did not initially know that the mall had a nursery or that children were trapped inside.
Also at issue was whether the center was equipped for a fire emergency. A former employee who testified confirmed that Gympanzee had a second exit, but that it would have led inhabitants right into the mall where the fire was. She also stated that the nursery had no windows or ventilation. In February, a judge on the case effectively placed a gag order on the trial, asking Doha News to request a letter formally seeking permission to cover it, and then denying that permission. After this, we began reporting what those who attended the hearings had heard and seen. The court convened for the 14th time on April 4, 2013, finally hearing closing arguments from the prosecution and defendants’ lawyers.
T HE V ILLAGGIO F IRE T RIAL D EFENDANTS
• Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium, is the owner of Gympanzee and confirmed that he supervised the obtaining of all the necessary permits for his business, which the technical report said operated as an unlicensed nursery; • Iman Al-Kuwari, daughter of Qatar’s culture minister, was the manager of Gympanzee and she affirmed that she had obtained all the necessary permits, including the approval of Civil Defense, to run her business. But whether she was violating the terms of her commercial license was up for debate; • Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, Villaggio’s chairman, told the prosecution that he used to conduct weekly visits to the mall to ensure that safety regulations were met and to verify that all the shops
Other parents of children who have attended the center, but were not there the day of the fire, testified that it was not a nursery, saying no teaching took place there.
There, the prosecutor made an impassioned plea that all seven defendants be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He pointed out that, given the size and popularity of Villaggio, the number of victims could easily have been multiplied, and that power and money should not absolve culpability in this case.
• Tzoulios Tzouliou, the manager of Villaggio, said
The defendants’ lawyers argued, among other things, that there is no direct causality that links any deeds acted out by their clients as the direct and sole cause of the death of any of the victims. For example, not obtaining the proper permits in itself did not result in death. They also took issue with the conditions under which the defendants were arrested and detained, especially the ambassador and Villaggio chairman, who were held in conditions that “did not match their status.” The men had been handcuffed and not told of their right to remain silent. Additionally, the testimony taken from the Villaggio employees was delivered under harsh conditions and thus should be dismissed. The lawyers also asked why the owner of Nike, where the fire began and where the sprinkler system was reportedly shut off, were not called into court. One lawyer proposed that the toxicity in the smoke came from the burnt Nike products, and not the paint on Villaggio’s walls - though the mall had been repeatedly fined since 2008 over the paint. Finally, the lawyer for the Business and Trade Ministry official said it is not uncommon procedure, as was pointed out during prior witness testimony, for many permit renewals to be signed based on accumulated knowledge gathered from regular and frequent visits. The lawyer retained by the victims’ families also spoke, asserting that the only way to ensure that such crimes of negligence are not committed again is for the material compensation to be painfully exorbitant.
Thus, he asked the court to order all seven defendants, their respective insurance companies and the Ministry of Business and Trade to collectively pay:
• The standard $55,000 (QR200,000) in blood-money for each deceased individual who died of involuntary manslaughter; • A $13.7 million (QR50 million) payout for material and emotional damages experienced by each inheritor of the victim; and • A $15.1 million (QR55 million) payout per inheritor as compensation for the pain and suffering experienced by the deceased.
A verdict is expected on June 20.
C HAPTER 3
One year on, we do not appear to have moved that far beyond a mall tragedy that shattered our naive belief in public safety. For the suffering relatives of the deceased, closure remains a long way off.
Photo courtesy American School of Doha
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the hallways of Hamad Hospital, anticipating answers. And then, they remember experiencing the crushing grief that knowledge brings. Umar Emeran, a 15-month-old South African and the fire’s youngest victim, died on his fifth day at Gympanzee. Unlike many of the parents who learned of their children’s deaths at Hamad, Umar’s mother, Zareena Solomon, saw him being carried out of the mall and watched paramedics unsuccessfully try to revive him before covering his body in defeat.
It still hurts. If there is one thing that all of Qatar can agree on about the Villaggio fire, it is that. Of course, the hardest hit are the relatives of the 13 children, four Gympanzee employees and two firefighters who were killed in the fire. “You don't recognize yourself,” the mother of 3-year-old Youssef Chata said about surviving the loss of her son. “You feel you're 70 or 80 (years old) because of all that you've seen.” Several things make it hard to move on. First, there is the horror of the day itself. Relatives recount hearing about the fire from phone calls and Facebook messages and tweeted photos of smoke. They remember feeling a growing sense of dread as they waited outside of Villaggio for familiar faces to emerge, and then pacing
There was no urgency for the couple on the way to HMC, like the other parents, but when doctors accidentally showed them the corpse of the wrong child, Umar’s father said he had one insane moment of hope, that perhaps his own son still belonged to this world. They buried Umar the next day. Photos show Mogammad Moeneeb Emeran carrying his son’s shrouded body at the funeral procession, flanked by weeping Civil Defense officers. "That was so painful," the 45-year old teacher said. "In the morning he was alive - and then all of a sudden, he was lifeless." Hana Sharabati, a 3-and-a-half-year-old Canadian/Saudi girl, was also buried the day after she died. "I used to feel my heart burning," her mother, Raghda Al Kabbani, 37, said. Emeran, however, said, "I felt like I didn't have a heart at all. It had been removed from my body."
Louie Aban thought that if he drove fast enough, he could get to Villaggio in time to save his wife, 29-year-old Maribel Orosco, who worked as an accountant at Gympanzee. But the 32-year-old Filipino didn’t make it in time. When Aban arrived at Villaggio, police barred him from going into the mall. Iman Al Kuwari, Gympanzee’s co-owner, and Orosco’s brother both also tried, but were not allowed to go inside.
Youssef’s mother, who asked to be identified by her initials NG, did not experience the stress of wondering what had happened to her son because she had not heard about the fire all day. She said she only started to worry about him after 4pm, when her father did not bring him home from Gympanzee as usual. “I thought maybe they went shopping,” said NG, who had come for a visit to Doha nearly a month earlier and was staying at her parents’ home while recovering from the delivery of her second child. She had just been released from the hospital on May 14. At 6pm, her father and brothers came home and told her to come along, because there was a fire at Villaggio. They looked terrible and tired. “Where’s Youssef,” NG asked, worried. “Just come with us,” came the reply.
G ALLERY 3.1 Photos from family and friends
Aban said he told officers that his wife and several children were trapped inside, “but they kept saying ‘no problem.’” Nearly two hours later, unable to locate Gympanzee, firefighters suited up Aban so that he could show them the way. But the air was too hot and the smoke too thick to make it inEvana Antonios side the nursery. Instead, officers began taking the victims out through the roof, and Aban later found his wife in the hospital mortuary. “The worse thing is my wife thought I could save her,” he said. “But I didn’t. I’m always asking for forgiveness for that. She knew, every problem I could fix. This one I couldn’t.”
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NG quickly threw an abaya over her pajamas, packed up her two-week-old daughter and rushed out the door. At the hospital, she saw her mother sitting with the French Counsel and other members of the French Embassy.
“I will never forget my mother's face had the most horrible expression, and she was not answering me,” NG recalled. Despite repeated questions, nobody would tell her what happened. “It was the worst few minutes of my life,” she said. Then, one nurse snapped at her: “You really want to see him?” “Everybody was under the greatest shock and grief,” Youssef's mother said, continuing:
"I still hear the cries of adults in my ears and realized that a lot of parents were also in the hospital. While following the nurse, I all of a sudden found myself in the morgue...Nobody said anything before I saw him... The shock was overwhelming. I did not yell or scream - my tears poured out of my eyes heavily and washed my face... (and) I just kept saying Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un (Surely we belong to God and to Him we return).”
The couple recalled that Evana had remnants of soot on her face from the dense smoke. The hospital had already taken her out of her clothes and covered her with a sheet. Her father turned her body over to make sure there were no injuries. Then they kissed her goodbye and prayed for her. They also turned to the priest of the Coptic Church in Qatar, who came to the hospital that night, for spiritual guidance. Jane and Martin Weekes were yet another couple who spent long, agonizing hours at the hospital, waiting for answers about their two-year-old triplets. In a letter recounting their experience the day of the fire, Jane Weekes writes about finding out that two of her children, Lillie and Jackson, had not survived. Willsher, however, was missing. She continues:
“...I prayed that he had hidden somewhere and might be OK, and was being treated in emergency. After another hour or more my husband was again taken to identify one last little child. We had described him as a little redhaired boy with big beautiful blue eyes... This child had hair darkened by soot and the hospital staff still said it was a girl. It was Willsher, our little boy. All my babies were dead.”
Youssef’s mom would return to the morgue a number of times that night, to see her son and try to accept her new reality. “He was sleeping like a little angel - no flame came near him,” she said. “He was just perfect, just sleeping.” The morgue is also where Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar and Manal Murgus finally came to know that their only child, 18-month-old Evana Antonios, was gone.
Camilo and Elena Travesedo also lost three children: Alfonso, Camilo and Almudena, aged 2, 5 and 7. Their friends, Yolanda
Mascaraque and Santiago Vela, had to say goodbye to their only child, Isabel, 7.
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Bereft At Home
“The following day I returned to her grave and scraped all the courage together to stand beside her. It was 10am and extremely hot. I did not care about the heat - I wanted to see my child and I remember sitting down and starting to scrape at the stones, wanting to see her face just to make sure that no mistake has been made with her identity. All I remember then was her dad and nephew taking me back to the vehicle,” she said.
If there is anything more painful than coming face-to-face with a departed loved one, burying that person and returning home without them rank high on the list. Maryam Charles flew to Qatar after losing a hero, her daughter Shameega Charles, a South African teacher whose body was retrieved from the office of Gympanzee. Umar and Evana, the two youngest daycare attendees, were found hidden inside her shirt. She was trying to protect them from the smoke. Charles, who had turned 29 three days before her death, had spent the weekend on the phone and on Skype with her family, including her five-year-old son, who lived in South Africa with his grandmother. Maryam Charles said when arrived to Doha on the Friday after the fire, she was taken to her daughter’s grave, but could not get herself to leave the car and face Shameega. Instead, she went back to her hotel room and cried. She continues:
Next came the difficult task of packing up her daughter’s apartment, Charles said:
“Everything she owned was unfamiliar to me - it felt like I was entering the apartment of a complete stranger. When I saw her son’s pictures on the nightstand, I knew I was in the right place. Overcome by emotion, I could not touch anything and was taken outside by (one of Shameega’s friends).”
Solomon, 40, also had a difficult time with her late son’s belongings. She still cannot bear to look at a pair of Umar’s Crocs that remain in the downstairs shoe cabinet. Her children have to warn her to look away before opening the cabinet, she said. She also cannot handle seeing pictures of Umar. She accidentally glimpsed one on a cell phone recently and froze for 15 minutes, her husband said.
That kind of grief has taken its toll on the Emeran family, who said they are working to take their loss one day at a time. That, apparently, is progress after the strife the tragedy initially caused. "The first four months were hell," Emeran said. After the fire, he and his wife spent a great deal of time mired in the blame game, the what-if game, and every other method of mental torture grieving parents put themselves through. But at some point, Emeran said he had to pull it together and lead his family of six through the storm. Solomon said she could only began moving forward after realizing that there was nothing anyone could have done to save her son. "I believe in Allah. I believe it was his time to go," she said. "But then there's also the negligence..."
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Waiting For Justice
A judge is expected to issue a decision next month, but it’s hard to hope that justice will be served, Antonios said:
“We understand that even when the verdict is announced, it will only be a preliminary verdict. There is still room for an appeal and other steps in the legal process. This can take years. For Qataris, this is not an issue, as they are citizens of this country. As for us, our lives here are not permanent. What if we leave our jobs and have to go home? We might leave Qatar without knowing the destiny of this trial.”
That’s another thing that makes it so hard for the families left behind to find closure - a lack of justice. Despite all the promises made to them after the fire, including from the Heir Apparent himself, accountability has yet to be assigned. Antonios recalled his visit with Qatar’s Deputy Emir, and his promise to hold those responsible accountable for what happened, regardless of the politics. “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.” Twelve months and 14 court hearings later, Qatar’s courts have yet to determine who, if anyone, will be held criminally responsible for the 19 deaths caused by the fire.
Some families have already left Qatar, unable to deal with the memories of their loved ones around every corner in Doha, or craving the strong support networks they have waiting for them at home. Four-year-old Ye Mengling’s parents moved to China almost immediately after the tragedy, and have had minimal contact with those in Qatar since. Others can’t bear to leave. “Doha is home,” said Solomon, who has lived here for 11 years. Murgus echoes a similar sentiment:
“For us, Evana was born here. She lived her short life here. This is where we feel connected to her. If we leave Qatar, then all of our memories of the places we took
her to, the things that she liked will die. The people who left could not deal with these painful memories.”
made a life-changing decision. Aban, who went to the Philippines, where his wife is buried, to mark the anniversary of her death, said he will return to Doha without his son. “I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “I can’t work properly, worrying about my son all the time. So I’ve decided to leave him in the Philippines, to be looked after by his grandmother, my mother-in-law. Not forever, though – only until the trial is finished. I know that this will take time, even after the verdict, because I know they will appeal, and there’s the Supreme Court after that, so it will take time. But when it’s finished, I will go back to the Philippines for good, and look after my son there.” There are more traumatized children, including the siblings of the deceased. Seventeen-year-old Nuhaa Emeran, sister of Umar, said:
“Before, I was too afraid to even mention his name and talk about him because when I heard my thoughts in words, it just rewound back to that day and played like a movie. My head was filled with the memories we made and it was so sad because to us, he's the best thing that's ever happened to us.”
Then there are the people who will be waiting forever, like the son of Shameega Charles. According to Maryam Charles, her grandson is in his tenth month of therapy, but has made little progress. He constantly speaks of Shameega as if she is still alive, and often asks when she is coming home, which gifts she will buy for his birthday, and then later, why did God take his mother. She said:
I explain to him that his mommy is with Allah, but the reality has not sunk in yet. He appears to block out reality according to the psychologist. When he says his prayers at night, he says a special prayer for her, the sadness in his voice is unbearable when it becomes a mere crackling whisper. If I was granted one wish it would be to heal his broken heart. He becomes very sad when he sees other children with their mums.”
Aban, husband of Gympanzee employee Maribel Osco, says that their son Liam, now 21 months, doesn’t remember his mother. “He’s always mentioning Mummy, but really, he doesn’t know what his Mummy looks like,” he said. Up until recently, Aban had hired a nanny to look after Liam, while he worked full-time in the Industrial Area. But he’s just
Her 19-year-old brother Ibraheem added: “We got back to our house, but it wasn’t the same. How could it be the same? Not after its heart and soul was now under the ground.”
S ECTION 4
As a social child who didn’t like to dine alone, Evana would call out to the other children when she sat down to eat at Gympanzee. Murgus said:
“She started saying her name at the nursery, calling herself ‘anana,’ But her father and I never heard it at home. My daughter died before I could even hear her say her own name.”
There are a lot of things relatives say they will miss about their departed loved ones. Maryam Charles always thinks about her daughter’s laugh, and the last time she heard it, while Skyping with Shameega a few days before the fire. “She always had an amazing sense of humor, but her laughter that particular night was nothing I have ever witnessed before,” she said. “The manner in which she laughed and threw herself back onto her bed, will always be embedded in my mind.” Evana’s father will miss going fishing on the Corniche, which he learned how to do just so that his daughter would have a fresh, healthy meal to eat. His wife thinks about all the things the couple will miss out on in the future, like conversing with their daughter.
Hana’s mom also misses the chatter. She described her daughter as a lively girl who could carry on a conversation with anyone and anything - even the contents of the refrigerator. "She used to talk to all the items in the house." Al Kabbani still can’t make meatballs, her daughter’s favorite food. And she has no plans to ever visit her daughter's grave. "I can't think she's there." For the Emerans, the loss of Umar caused an unbearable quiet to settle over their home. “He took up all of our time,” his dad remembered. “All of a sudden, you have an infinite amount of time.” “It was so quiet,” his wife added. The silence from the government has also been difficult to take. Rubbing salt in the wounds, said Emeran, is the fact that
his friends think the families of the deceased have been paid off. “Many people think we’ve been compensated, but there hasn’t even been any communication,” Umar’s dad said. Speaking to New Zealand media, Janes Weekes said, “We lost our children - we’re not just whining about some general inconvenience. The silence “is insulting to the memory of our children.” A new arrival to the Emeran home, however, has helped to heal the cracks in their family. Two months ago, Solomon gave birth to Maryam. Throughout her pregnancy, Solomon recalled being worried that she would not have a connection to the child. Solomon said:
I wanted Maryam to be a boy - I remember when I found out I was pregnant, I had kept Umar's cloths for a little boy that I wished would look just like him. I prayed for that. The day the (doctor) told me it was a girl, I was surprisingly relieved. Now Maryam is with us, filling our days which were for a year dull with an awkward quietness that was always taken up by my beloved Umar.
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.
At least two other couples who lost their children are growing their families again. Jane and Martin Weekes are expecting twins this summer. The prospect is “scary,” Jane told news media, adding that the couple hopes moving forward in this way will help them to close the “unfathomable gap” left by the death of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher. Camilo and Elena Travesedo, the Spanish family who lost three children in the fire, are also expecting. Evana’s parents are trying again, but Murgus said it’s just not happening. According to her doctor, there are no physical barriers preventing her from getting pregnant again, but her emotional state could be affecting the outcome. Whatever happens, the relatives of all the loved ones say they will carry their memories in their hearts forever. “To call them special would do them an injustice, to say that we miss them would be an understatement, but to say that they’re the ones always on our minds would be nothing less than the truth,” Ibraheem Emraan said.
C HAPTER 4
A Country of Fires
Fire and building safety have been on the minds of many this past year. Coupled with the grief and shock of the Villaggio fire is a desire for Qatar to learn from the past, and to keep such a disaster from ever happening again.
Photo by Omar Chatriwala
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cause 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. Most fires happened during the hot summer months, with 124 cases reported in May of 2011 and well over 100 in June and July. In 2010, May also logged the most fires, at 97. In 2012, 78 out of the 1,192 reported fires in Qatar occurred in malls, service areas and shops.
There is no doubt that Qatar has worked to make the country a safer place this past year, but experts say efforts have fallen short, in part due to inexperience, a lack of a developed safety culture and a bottom-line mindset. “Law will always remain law. But what good is it when society does not take it seriously?” Hussain Aman Al-Ali, assistant director of the Preventative Department of Civil Defense, recently told news media. Over the past 12 months, the Ministry of Interior’s Civil Defense department has stepped up safety checks, ordered the closure of businesses deemed unsafe without warning and worked to shore up the implementation of fire safety procedures, for example by supervising fire drills in shopping malls. Still, 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 be-
One such fire took place at City Center Mall, at the McDonald’s in its main food court, which has been shuttered for renovations ever since. Olaf Kindt, director of that mall, said that prior to the Villaggio fire, “we probably hadn’t seen (Civil Defense) for a couple of years – they hadn’t been here for any kind of inspection or drill. But now, it’s getting much more active…and we’re very glad, because in the end we are not fire experts, nor are we experts of the law of Qatar, so of course we need the support of the Qatari Civil Defense.” A retail manager at Villaggio Mall also said that before the fire, Civil Defense officials “weren’t very visible,” but now they frequent the mall every two or three days.
Despite this flurry of activity, there is still a great deal of confusion surrounding what the safety standards in Qatar actually are, and whether they are being enforced reliably and consistently. According to Qatari law, fire strategies for new buildings must be addressed as early as the design stage, and are required to be based on either UK or US building standards. This would include elements such as the alarm and sprinkler systems, the location of fire exits and fire-proofing of the structure. Civil Defense must sign off on this strategy before construction can begin. However, even if the plans are approved, they are not always implemented or maintained, said Nathan Goddard, a health and safety engineer who has been working in Qatar for 15 years. He said:
“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. 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.”
following, and whether its increased level of activity in the last year is because of the introduction of new rules or simply a renewed enforcement of the old ones. Civil Defense did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Kindt said he was surprised when City Center mall was ordered to close for three weeks last year, shortly after the Villaggio fire. “I guess the reason was they wanted to make sure everything was under law and order, and as they were not focusing on this so much before, it was unclear,” he said. He explained that changes made during the closure included a thorough check of the mall’s alarm and sprinkler systems, amplifying emergency exit signage, increasing the numbers of security guards from 39 to 55, and updating software so that when a fire alarm goes off, all the escalators stop automatically. In addition, the mall is in the process of upgrading its alarm system to include announcements telling people to leave through the nearest exit, installing flashing lights for people who cannot hear well and setting up a direct link to Civil Defense so that it becomes aware of an alarm the moment it is activated. “We are really serious on working to provide a secure environment,” Kindt said, adding that sometimes this is made harder
When it comes to the ongoing maintenance of fire systems, it is still not clear exactly what set of standards Civil Defense is
by confusing instructions from Civil Defense. For example, during City Center’s closure, officials were unable to tell him whether some fire exit doors needed replacing entirely or just repairing. He continued:
“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. Sometimes we don’t know 100 percent (what we’re supposed to do) and we don’t get a clear answer from Civil Defense, maybe because they are also in between, they are also developing.”
even if the electricity shuts off, and is training stores’ sales representatives and janitors in evacuation procedures.
Other malls also upgraded their procedures this year. At Hyatt Plaza, officials said they immediately revised their fire protocols after what happened at Villaggio, hiring fire wardens to work each shift; making evacuation plans visible throughout the mall; linking their fire alarm system directly to Civil Defense; and installing a sprinkler system that includes devices in between the ceiling and the floor above. They are also working to replace substandard electrical components inside the mall. And Ezdan Mall, which opened in Gharafa in April after a sixmonth delay, said progress was pushed back after the Villaggio fire so that the complex would be better prepared for emergencies. For example, Ezdan has added several emergency exits, installed glass panes in the ceiling to improve lighting
S ECTION 2
A Long Road
“They have a few experts, but is it enough to control the country? No. There has to be more co-operation, more understanding. If they have any doubt about the standards, they have to find the experts.”
A leading Qatari fire engineer at a large government-run company suggests that Civil Defense is an organization in flux. The health and safety expert, who asked not be named to preserve job security, said there have been big changes in the last year and that while the government branch is working hard to raise standards, it remains a very long way from where it needs to be. “The capability of Civil Defense is very small compared with the growing infrastructure,” the engineer said. “Their capability is created for 10 years back. They have to know there is a boom in infrastructure and they need to meet this. They are improving but they need to do more.” One of the main problems, he added, is a shortage of qualified people within the organization:
Another international safety expert working at a new mall in Doha has a similar view, saying that the Civil Defense officers he comes into contact with are of very mixed quality. “Some are qualified and competent, some are not. In general, they lack experience,” he said, also requesting not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the mall. Aware that there is room for improvement, the Ministry of Interior has sent a group of some dozen recruits to the UK every year for the last five years to participate in a bespoke training program at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire. The recruits spend the first year learning English, followed by a two-year, in-depth program that covers operational management, including fighting fires and taking command at fire incidents, as well as fire protection and prevention. If they pass the course, the recruits become Civil Defense officers on their return to Qatar. So far, around 20 have completed the course, and 28 are currently in the UK at different stages of their studies. Paul Hinken, an instructor at the Fire Service College and the international program development coordinator, said the Qatari recruits do about 40 separate courses over their two
years, more than many UK fire officers will do in their entire careers. “They are undertaking a very difficult process. Not everybody passes, so it’s a credit to the ones that do get through the whole process here and graduate as officers,” he said. Even if the numbers going through the program are relatively small, the UK program demonstrates a commitment by Civil Defense to improve the levels of expertise within its ranks. But ensuring Qatar residents stay safe will take more than Civil Defense, experts said, adding that a profound cultural shift is needed so that all stakeholders here understand and prioritize health and safety. “The safety culture in our country does not have the necessary preparedness. There is a lack of awareness and education in safety issues. For example, the recent earthquake – we didn’t think it would happen here, and we are not prepared for that scenario,” the Qatari engineer said. An appreciation for proper standards is particularly important when it comes to the maintenance and safety of older buildings, where the level is largely contingent on the personal commitment of the building owner. According to Goddard, the health and safety engineer, it is the owner’s responsibility to ensure that a contractor hired to check the building’s fire systems is competent to do the job.
And if a fault is identified, it is again up to the owner to ensure it gets fixed properly. The problem with this, the engineer said, is “that you get what you pay for…and they’re not always willing to throw money at the stuff they really need.” In Qatar, private contractors are typically hired to test alarm and sprinkler systems and check fire extinguishers. They then sign the paperwork that Civil Defense can demand to see in routine or unannounced checks. But just because the paperwork is in order and the boxes are ticked, doesn’t necessarily mean you can trust that the systems are safe, said the safety expert at a new mall here. However, according to the Qatari engineer, the shock of the Villaggio fire has accelerated a shift in mindset. He said:
“The people at the top suddenly realized this is a priority, this is people’s lives. The mentality is changing, and we (the safety professionals) are getting more support.”
City Center manager Kindt said he sees this shift in shop tenants’ new willingness to co-operate with fire drills during trading hours – a move that often puts a dent in revenue. And Goddard also suggested that the Villaggio fire has prompted people to step up their game on matters of fire safety. But, he said, the country still has a long way to go, and in many ways that is not surprising. “It is a young coun44
try…it’s taken the UK 60 years to get where we are and we still have problems.” For now, here in Qatar, it seems that there are many individuals and organizations that are committed to high standards, but overall, implementation remains very inconsistent. For every businesses, organization or building owner that prioritizes fire safety, many more do not. And experts say Civil Defense simply does not have the manpower and expertise to step in and put things right yet. Adding to these concerns is a general lack of transparency and openness about how things are done. In the course of researching this issue, Doha News approached several shopping malls and residential tower blocks to find out about their safety practices. In the vast majority of cases, this request was turned down. If organizations are not confident enough in their own safety procedures to make them public, it naturally raises the question of whether they really are doing enough, or whether they feel they have something to hide.
C HAPTER 5
Although no Qatar citizens died in the Villaggio fire, many locals have spoken out about what happened, calling it a national tragedy that affected everyone. Here, three Qataris offer their opinions.
Photo by Josh Hughes
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I was flicking from one TV channel to another. It was only one new channel, Al Rayyan, which started to air something. The newspapers had nothing, nobody was there! It was shocking, really shocking. It was a really bad thing that happened, people kept on talking about it for days. But to be frank, they thought the media would take it up, and that it would be in the media until things were solved. But I don’t think any of the mainstream news here in Doha covered it at all, only for two or three days afterwards and then that was it. I have no idea why.
By Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, veteran journalist, author and publishing consultant at Qatar Foundation
When it came on the news that there was a fire at Villaggio, we really couldn’t understand the magnitude of it. Who is there? What is happening? Is it a big one or a small one? And we found out at that point that we don’t have very quick, responsive news. Twitter was the only way to get information. People were standing outside tweeting about it, and when I saw pictures of women crying for their kids, then I saw it was really a big problem.
Is it because they just want to forget about it? Is it because the court process takes too much time? It seems to me like everybody is waiting for somebody to tell them what to do.
The question is, why are our media still in the freezer? Why are they not trying to change the way they do things? Why do they just stand still as if it was the 1970s or ‘80s? This fire really made people aware of how bad our media is. I saw a report made by the Northwestern University in Qatar students about the fire. It was nicely covered. I was wondering why something like this was not done by our media? What’s wrong? It’s not magic, it’s not missile technology! It’s something very easy – students have done it, so why not our media?
I understand that people would like to go on with their lives, but it is good to know exactly who is responsible and what went wrong. Personally I believe that if there is a disaster or something bad happens, it’s not how it was solved that day, but what are the lessons learnt? I haven’t seen any regulation or reforms to stop it from happening again, except maybe more regulation of the fire systems, but even that is not published. I haven’t seen anything published. What was the old system that Civil Defense used to follow before, and what has been changed now? Nobody knows. Maybe they have been focusing on the malls. But something like this could happen in an apartment building, in a school, a hospital. We need to know what kind of regulation or changes they have been asked to do. People need to open up about this and we need to understand. I’m relying on the young generation now to do much better than the present generation, with their education and their understanding of other nations. They might come up with solutions and they might be more open and more demanding. Let’s hope so really. I’m just hoping that things will change.
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A Wake-Up Call
I believe that the Villaggio fire was a very strong wake-up call for the authorities to consider safety and security as priority in their mentoring and controlling systems. In reaction to the Villaggio fire, the authorities obliged all buildings (especially ones housing children) to follow their new rules on safety and security, to be accomplished during a specific period of time. However, I think that such a “wake-up call” should be followed and evaluated continuously in order to ensure that it is still valid and effective.
By Dr. Hend Al Muftah, associate professor of Human Resources Management at Qatar University and managing director of the Childhood Cultural Centre
I felt panic and shock as this was the first time such scary event had happened in Qatar. At the outset it was not easy for me to absorb the seriousness of the event, as I was watching the dark, thick smoke above the mall from my office window. However, a few hours later, I realized how serious it was – the disaster of losing 19 innocent individuals that turned that day into tragedy.
These lessons have been learned with pain, surely.
Socially, the event affected the Qatari community, which showed its sympathy to the kids' families. Security-wise, the Qatari community became less trusting of the safety systems in the public places. Although it is a year since the event, the Villaggio fire is still a debated topic, especially for the Qataris at “Majlis" gatherings, and particularly the issue of the trial of the owners. On the other side, the authorities are taking very serious preventive actions when it comes to future constructions.
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very sympathetic toward the victims - which is natural considering we are all humans. On the day of the fire, we were angry about the lack of media coverage on this story. The media should be ashamed of themselves. Period. We rely on Twitter for these kind of issues - and Twitter is only as reliable as the person who tweeted, which cannot be determined. We had to wait eight hours before the government-based state TV channel told us what happened.
By Mohammed Al-Jufairi, Contracts Engineer at Dolphin Energy Company
When I first heard about the Villaggio Mall fire, I was skeptical about the intensity of the blaze. I thought it was just another "kitchen fire," which is common in Qatar and not newsworthy. However, as news of the seriousness of the blaze started to spread, I was very nervous, worried and restless. I was praying that no one was hurt. When it was clear that people died, I think the Qatari community was angry and heartbroken at the same time over the tragedy. Never has Qatar been so united in grief and sorrow - both government and citizens together, expats and locals. People felt
The government has a tough job trying to balance the information that needs to go out to the public without contributing to the chaos or panic that might follow, considering Qatar is a small community.
That, however is no excuse for not trying to cover this story live, as it happened. I am definitely seeing an improvement toward people incorporating aspects of fire safety in homes, workplaces, and schools. But I think that at the time of the tragedy, people were more active and vocal than they are now. People should not become complacent; they should not stop thinking about safety or talking about it.
C HAPTER 6
Villaggio mall closed for three and a half months after the fire. When it did reopen in September 2012, it was to a bittersweet reception, and minus one whole section of the mall.
Photo by Penny Yi Wang
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Business As Usual?
Given the mixed feelings of the community and a lack of public comment from the mall’s management, you might wonder how things have changed at Villaggio. There’s some evidence to suggest that an unofficial boycott from some residents has had an impact. According to a retail manager there, who asked to remain anonymous, the mall definitely sees fewer visitors than before. “Foot traffic is not the same as it was a year ago - that’s a fact,” he said. “Everybody’s well aware of that. One whole section is actually missing, so the mall (management) will point to that and say it’s not at 100 percent capacity, but it’s obvious that the numbers are down.” Some who have not returned say they still do not feel the mall has done enough to address safety concerns. This is in part because when Villaggio re-opened in September, it did so with little fanfare - with management even removing floral tributes left near the closed corridors - and no explanation about what changes have been made to shore up safety. Villaggio management and representatives have repeatedly declined Doha News’ requests for comment about fire. However, the retail manager - who asked not to be named as he isn't authorized to speak on record about the mall - told us that safety-wise, things have indeed improved. Maintenance checks now occur more regularly and employees are far more vigilant of potential hazards, especially any wir52
Near the Gate 3 entrance to Villaggio Mall, next to the mouth of its canal, a large gondola is on display. It is backed by an enormous fresco depicting Venice on a summer’s day, which people regularly stand in front of to pose for photos. Those visiting Villaggio for the first time might think that this truncated corridor has always been part of the mall. They wouldn’t know that behind the elegant screen, rests the site of one of the country’s most devastating tragedies. Many Qatar residents said they were happy when the mall reopened, with some even expressing relief after going the whole summer without it. For others, the re-opening was a sign that things were returning to normal after the tragedy. Others, especially the victims’ relatives, say going back to the way things used to be is impossible, and have urged a boycott of the mall until key questions about its role in the fire are answered.
ing or electrical problems, he said. He added that Civil Defense has become noticeably stricter.
Regardless, there are moments for concern.
In October of 2012, half a dozen children were stuck on a ride “They will shut down shops for any misdemeanors and won’t at the mall’s indoor theme park, Gondolania. There were there even give them a warning,” he said. for about an hour after a technical malfunction suddenly stopped the ride. The children, But there is still a lack of confiwho were wedged in their seats G ALLERY 6.1 Villaggio After The Fire dence among some members of upside down in mid-air, were the public that the mall has eventually rescued by Civil Dereally gotten a grip on safety. fense. That’s not to say the place is a ghost town – not even close. When Doha News visited on a Monday morning in early May, the only ostensible difference from a year ago was the closure of the section between Gate 3 and Gate 4, where Gympanzee had been located, along with the Nike shop where the fire started. None of the kids suffered any injuries, but all were crying, and some of them had vomited. Erin and James Olsen, whose son had been among those stuck on the ride, told Doha News about their experience:
“It’s not clear that those responsible for Gondolania had any more idea what to do in the Many shops between Gates 3 & 4 were destroyed, but other situation than we did. There areas appeared untouched. Photos by Housam Elkouteini Other than that, it certainly apwas no padding to put underpeared to be business as usual, neath the dangling children. as the mall teemed with a conThere were no ladders or other stant stream of mid-week shoppers, cheery shop assistants on machinery to reach up to the children (such things were their break and office workers hurrying in and out to grab sought after the whole time - but no one seemed to know lunch. where or even if such things existed).
There was not even a member of the Gondolania or Villaggio management who bothered to talk to us or offer any support throughout the entirety of the event. ...It’s clear that much more work is needed here.” And just last month, Villaggio was evacuated after an airconditioning unit in a clothing store malfunctioned, which to some seemed eerily reminiscent of the day of the fire. Later that week, late-night movie-goers were forced to exit the cinema after a popcorn machine caught on fire. Witness Fahad Al-Hedfa told Doha News that the fire alarm began ringing shortly after he and his friends sat down for a 1am show.
"I went to see and the smoke (was) coming from one of the popcorn machines. People were covering their faces because the smoke spread everywhere and even after three hours of getting out of Villaggio I was tasting the smoke in my mouth.”
fact, minor fires are a regular occurrence in almost all of the country’s malls. Similar evacuations have occurred at neighboring Hyatt Plaza this past year, and City Center Mall is still retooling its main food court after a fire broke out at McDonald’s early in 2012. Safety concerns have also been raised at Landmark Mall after the ceiling at its Haagen Dazs branch suddenly collapsed last month. There were no reported injuries at Landmark - or during any of the other incidents - although photos of the damage at the ice cream shop spread rapidly on social media, with residents once again questioning whether buildings here are up to code. As Doha News commenter ENHUGE pointed out, “Correctly specified construction of a building is only the beginning. Once built, is has to be managed. Management of fire risk has to be continuous, it is not a single tick box then to be forgotten.”
Movie-goer Faizan Aziz adds his views: “By the time we exited the mall, the Civil Defence, fire department and Fazaa were arriving, yet there was very little being done to get people outside the mall… There must have been a good couple hundred people inside as this was the midnight movie show on a weekend night.” The small fires have prompted many a claim on Facebook and Twitter by Qatar residents that Villaggio is “cursed.” But in
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One noticeable improvement, though, is that Villaggio is now peppered with emergency exit signs. During a visit in May of this year, a Doha News reporter estimated that she was never more than 30 meters away from a sign. But these were sometimes confusing, because the signs are double-sided. The direction they tell you to go in depends on which side you are looking at them from. For example, in the food court area near McDonald’s, one exit sign points away from main entrance to the passageway where toilets are. When you get there, another sign points you back the way you came. But apart from concerns about safety, another issue causing concern among some Qatar residents is the limbo the mall is in, legally speaking. Four Villaggio officials are on trial over their roles in the deadly fire. A court verdict to determine criminal responsibility in the 19 deaths is expected on June 20. In the meantime, the Villaggio staff we spoke to confirmed that there have been no changes to the mall’s management team since the fire. Everyone who was there before – including the four on trial – is still in the same position. When Doha News polled readers about how they felt toward Villaggio a year on from the fire, Hannah Shurey responded: “Out of respect for the families that have suffered these horrendous losses, I am boycotting (the mall). When will the people responsible ever be punished? Where is the justice?”
Because the fire that claimed 19 lives took place at Villaggio, any small, disquieting moment there rarely goes unnoticed. Nathan Goddard, a health and safety engineer here, recounts a recent experience he had at the mall’s Carrefour supermarket. While there on a Friday, Goddard watched guards shutter the main entrances to the store in a bid to clear out shoppers before closing at prayer time. But up to 150 people were still inside the store, and the only way out was squeezing through the checkout lanes, past the cashiers. “I told the managers they were in breach of the fire safety laws by closing the doors when there were still people inside, but I have to say, I think it fell on deaf ears…I don't feel 100 percent safe shopping there, and I do often feel that safety is neglected,” Goddard said.
Another commenter, Jennifer Keramianakis, said:
“I find it very hard to go there, knowing the poor families who have lost their little angels and loved ones, have been treated with such disrespect and disregard during the legal proceedings. One can't help but wonder if the guilty parties ever will ever be brought to justice.”
After the fire, long-standing rumors that the mall would be demolished and a park built in its place picked up steam again, but still appear to hold no water. Some residents, however, continue to hold on to the idea that mall officials should offer a lasting tribute to the 19 lives lost, and provide a permanent reminder that a tragedy like this must not be allowed to happen again. “A lot of people want some kind of recognition of the fact, something to show that Villaggio recognizes what happened,” said the retail manager, adding that many staff members, and not just shoppers, also feel this way. “ People aren’t coming because of what happened, but if there was some kind of reconciliation, it might make a difference.” He hinted that a memorial could be included when the newly renovated section, near the site of the Gympanzee nursery, is reopened. Notably, a black ribbon does remain on its website.
Whether any kind of formal memorial inside the mall could offer comfort to the families of the victims is another matter, though. So far, almost all have refused to step inside of Villaggio. Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar, father of 18-monthold Evana, did attend the soft opening of the mall to see if anything had changed. The civil engineer recalls that it was early in the morning and officials were doing a trial with the fire alarm - which still didn’t work. “I was stunned at that,” he said. The mother of Shameega Charles, the 28 year-old South African teacher who died in the fire, said she just has one wish: “To go see the exact place where my daughter took her last breath…will I be permitted?”
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