Doha daycare centre was unlicensed - reports

BLAIR ENSOR, PALOMA MIGONE AND MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 18:56 30/05/2012
Weekes
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Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes.

Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes
THE TRIPLETS: Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes.

Triplets' parents join service

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The Qatar daycare at the centre of an investigation of a shopping mall fire may not have been licensed to operate, Arabic media have reported.

An official in the Social Affairs Ministry said it never issued a permit for Gympanzee.

About 85 nurseries had been licensed by the ministry since taking over licensing duties from the Supreme Education Council "a few years ago," Gulf Times reported.

Gympanzee opened in 2009, so it is unclear whether it operated on a license granted by the SEC.

Qatar's attorney general has ordered the arrest of five people following the Doha mall fire which left Kiwi triplets Lillie, Willsher and Jackson Weekes dead.

Doha media today reported that Ali Bin Al-Marri Fetais had ordered that the mall manager, the assistant manager and the assistant director of security be detained as part of the investigation. Two others were also being held, it was reported.

Jane and Martin Weekes' 2-year-old triplets, Lillie, Willsher and Jackson Weekes, were among the 19 people, 13 of them children, killed in the fire at the Villaggio mall on Monday.

Last night, staff in Qatar carried out their first extensive investigations.

Martin and Jane Weekes have three older children - Natalya, Tatjana and Nikolai - who attend school in Doha.

The couple hugged people at the service held in a Doha park.

They also released a statement saying they were grateful for the love and support they had received.

The inseparable triplets were the joy of their lives, they said.

"Lillie, Jackson and Willsher came into this world together and were inseparable as siblings, best friends and the joy of our life," the Weekes said.

"Tragically, they left together after only two short years. A time that was lived to the full everyday with us laughing, playing, waking us at all hours of the night and simply being the sunshine in our world.

"We would like to thank everyone for their love and support. Our thoughts are also with the other families affected by this tragedy."

Tarek Bazley, a former Radio New Zealand journalist working in Doha, said the service was a spontaneous event with about 1500 people mourning children not only from New Zealand, but also Spain, France, South Africa and the Palestinian territories.

"A lot of people were placing flowers at a focal point," he said.

"Martin and Jane Weekes very bravely and incredibly came along and continued the grieving process that they are going through."

Bazley said the father of the woman who owned the Gympanzee nursery, where the children were killed, was also at the vigil. The man described his daughter as the "saddest person on earth".

New Zealander Steve Walker was at the vigil and told Morning Report it was an emotional experience.

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"All of New Zealand should just be so proud of our culture and the key group that stepped forward for the waiata, the haka, and everyone in the crowd came together and they really pulled the whole event off and it just makes you so proud to be a New Zealander.

"Every man did the haka so well for their country and they hugged Martin, and Jane was right there, and that was the emotional moment of the whole gathering and again we were just so proud to be New Zealanders.

THEIR THREE LITTLE MONKEYS

Jane Weekes dropped her three little monkeys off as usual, saying goodbye as they sat behind their desks in Villaggio Mall's daycare centre in Qatar.

Their snacks were packed in their bags for playtime, the 2-year-old triplets ready for another day on Monday at what one of them was already excitedly calling "school". It was the last time their mother would see them alive.

"It's just like happiness is gone," their grandfather, Ron Turner, said yesterday before heading to Qatar from Wellington to meet his distraught daughter and her husband, Martin.

"My daughter is no different to every other mother. Their children mean the world – if you could take the child's place, you would."

Lillie, Willsher and Jackson Weekes had tumbled into the world together; they were the triplets who almost didn't make it through their first weeks of life.

Born about 10 weeks premature on March 11, 2010, in Wellington Hospital, their tiny bodies together made up the weight of one healthy baby. Neo-natal staff nursed them back from the brink, bundling them home from hospital together.

And it was together they would die, less than two years later, as the Gympanzee daycare centre went up in flames.

The triplets were among 19 people, including 13 children, who were killed in a fire in the popular mall in the Qatari capital, Doha. Most died of smoke inhalation. According to reports, there was no way out.

The cause of the fire – believed to have started in the daycare centre – is being investigated, and a government inquiry into the safety standards of buildings in Qatar has been launched.

Questions are now being asked about the mall's evacuation plans and fire protection measures, with reports that the top two managers of the mall had been arrested and may be charged today.

But for the families of the dead, that means little. "To be honest, there is nothing anyone can do now that will bring them back," Mr Turner said through tears as he waited at Auckland Airport with wife Jo and his son-in-law's brother, David Weekes.

They received the devastating call yesterday morning. "[Jane said] `Hi Dad', and then she burst into tears and said, `I've got some terribly bad news' and then she told us. I just couldn't believe it. It ... broke my heart, but I tried to be a little bit stronger for my daughter before I told her mum.

"She said the babies had gone to their morning session at pre-school or daycare and she had taken them in and sat them down at their wee desks as usual and left them."

Mrs Weekes had received a phone call saying her children had died, and she and her husband raced to the mall. But the area was cordoned off.

At the airport, Mr Turner said he had just received a text from his daughter saying, "Hurry, it's tough here."

"We just said, `You have a sleep and relax, and we'll get there as soon as we can'."

The Weekes had been in Qatar for about five years. Mr Weekes, a former chief executive of Eden Park, was working for q.media, a group representing organisations such as Al Jazeera, Qatar TV and Qatar Radio.

Two years ago, Mrs Weekes returned to New Zealand to give birth to the triplets.

They were on ventilators for varying lengths of time, and had blood transfusions for anaemia. The triplets spent nine weeks in hospital. Though the two boys were ready to go home a few days before Lillie, they stayed until all three could leave together.

Mr Turner said he and his wife were proud grandparents and "we wanted to show them off [to everyone]".

Back in New Zealand again in February, Mrs Weekes had done just that, taking the triplets back to Wellington Hospital to show staff "what a great job [they'd done]", he said.

He and his wife had been to Qatar for the triplets' first and second birthdays. Despite being the only girl, headstrong Lillie would never let her brothers get the best of her, he said. "She could stand up for herself when the three of them were playing and arguing about toys.

"She was very proud in telling her grandmother on Skype that she went to school now and she called the daycare centre school ... and how they took their bags and put snacks in the bags and things. They were just like every 2-year-old that anybody has ever had, I suppose.

"They were just such a delight of course for us."

Family and friends have kept track of the triplets on Jane's blog, where she lovingly recorded each milestone of the children she referred to as her "monkeys".

Photos show them in Christmas outfits, being pushed through the pool by Dad in identical floatable rings, and meeting Mickey Mouse.

Mrs Weekes, who won a "best mum" competition in Doha just months before the toddlers died, was happiest when the children sat around a table "laughing like loons at each other", she wrote on the blog. "They are so blessed to be surrounded by so much activity [they are SUPER busy!] and smiles and laughter."

In her latest post, she described how much the triplets loved being naked and flushing toilets as part of their potty training.

Meanwhile, accusations are flying in Doha, as it was reported that a stairway to the childcare centre collapsed, and emergency services had to break in through the roof.

Witnesses said at least one exit in the mall was chained shut, and that the fire alarm rang for 25 minutes before the mall was evacuated.

"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," Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, Qatar's interior minister and a member of the ruling royal family, said.

Four teachers and two firefighters also died in the fire, which injured a further 17 people. The death toll included victims from Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Benin and neighbouring Arab countries, but no Qataris.

Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand consular staff were on their way from nearby Saudi Arabia to help return the triplets' bodies to New Zealand.

- The Dominion Post

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