Probe into Qatar inferno

2012-05-29 22:43

Doha - Investigators on Tuesday scoured an upmarket shopping mall in Qatar for clues to an inferno that killed 19 people, 13 of them children, as heartbroken relatives and friends began to bury the victims.

Triplets from New Zealand were among the children who perished in Monday's blaze in the Venice-themed Villaggio centre in Doha.

More than 2 000 people attended the funeral of a South African boy, a South African paediatric nurse and an Iranian firefighter in Doha. All three victims were Muslim.

The cleric leading the funeral prayers called the victims "heroes and martyrs".

A separate religious service will be held later on Tuesday for Christian victims of the blaze in the mall, a favourite destination for Qatar's tens of thousands of foreign residents.

All 19 dead were foreigners, including the triplets, four Spanish children and the South African boy buried on Tuesday, according to Captain Mubarak al-Bouainain, head of information at the interior ministry.

An American girl of Arab origin, a Chinese boy, a Canadian girl and two Egyptian children, one of whom also had French citizenship, also died in the blaze. Most of the victims will be repatriated for burial.

Two firefighters, a Moroccan and an Iranian, died, as did three women from the Philippines who worked at the nursery.

Newspapers in the Gulf state posed questions over the licensing of a nursery in the middle of the huge mall, where all of the victims reportedly died of smoke inhalation.

Very hot

Footage posted online showed clouds of black smoke billowing from the complex as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. Other pictures showed rescue workers carrying children on the roof of the mall.

The blaze is thought to have started in or near the Gympanzee nursery.

"The first report of fire at Villaggio was received by the operations centre at 11:02 (08:02 GMT)," QNA state news agency quoted state minister for the interior Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani as saying, adding that police and civil defence were on the scene within minutes.

He said it became clear that 20 children were in the first-floor nursery and "all efforts were concentrated on evacuating those kids," adding that firefighters had to break through the roof to gain access after a staircase collapsed.

Dense smoke inside the mall combined with the fierce temperature from the flames made reaching the trapped children very difficult, a civil defence representative told a news conference.

Expatriate New Zealand journalist Tarek Bazley said he was there with his two children when the fire began, but they escaped unharmed.

"The volume of smoke coming out of it, it looked like you had 30 steam trains all pumping their smoke out above it," Bazley told Radio New Zealand.

But he said there was a lack of urgency from officials in the mall when alarms sounded and complained of a "complete lack of planning, a complete lack of co-ordination in terms of removing people from this area".

"The first thing I heard of it was a very benign fire alarm; it sounded more like a doorbell, to be honest," he said.

Health Minister Khaled al-Qahtani said all of the fatalities were caused by asphyxiation, adding that 17 people were injured, mostly firefighters.

Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ordered a commission to investigate the tragedy, Doha-based Al-Jazeera television reported.

Results on Wednesday

The interior minister told AFP the results of the inquiry could be announced as early as Wednesday.

In Madrid, a foreign ministry spokesperson said embassy officials were trying to get more details on the four Spanish children killed.

Yamina Benguigui, the minister in charge of French expatriates, announced in Paris that a French child died, but declined to give any further details.

In Wellington, Prime Minister John Key confirmed the New Zealand triplets, believed to be three-year-olds, were among the victims.

Radio New Zealand named them as Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes.

Community news Tumblr Doha News posted a note from South African Maryam Charles saying that her daughter, Shameega Charles, 29, a teacher at the nursery, "perished in the blaze".

"Did this nursery meet the conditions to get a licence?" asked Al-Watan daily, addressing its question to the social affairs ministry.

"We await answers over how it was allowed that kids of such age could be at a place not sufficiently equipped," it said.

"It is negligence that resembles a premeditated murder," charged Saleh al-Kawari, editor-in-chief of Al-Raya daily, in his editorial.

"This is a real catastrophe."