Doha fire: Kiwi grandma talks about family's devastation

BLAIR ENSOR, PALOMA MIGONE, MICHAEL FIELD AND STACEY KIRK
Last updated 11:36 29/05/2012

Kiwi children dead in Doha mall fire

An injured man on a stretcher receives medical attention after a blaze at the Villaggio Mall in Doha's west end.
Reuters Zoom
An injured man on a stretcher receives medical attention after a blaze at the Villaggio Mall in Doha's west end.

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LATEST: The grandmother of the Kiwi triplets killed in a Doha mall fire has spoken of the family's absolute devastation.


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The triplets, Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes, were among the 19 killed in yesterday's fire at the Villaggio Mall, their grandmother, Jo Turner, confirmed this morning. Qatari officials said 13 of the dead were children.

"Our daughter rang, what can you say? It's absolutely devastating," Turner said.

Her daughter, Jane, had lived in Qatar for about five years. She had returned to New Zealand to give birth to the triplets, she said.

"They were everything to her. She was a great mum. She was a hands on mum."

"I didn't push her for any information. She just told us what she needed to tell us.

"It was just that 'our babies they died in a fire at the day care centre'."

PM ON THE TRAGEDY

Prime Minister John Key said it was a "great tragedy".

The triplets' New Zealand-based grandparents were leaving for Qatar this evening.

"The family are obviously dealing with terrible grief," Key said.

"It's a very tragic day for that family.

"Obviously there are very serious questions that will need to be answered."

Key said New Zealand consular staff were on their way from nearby Saudi Arabia to help return the bodies to New Zealand.ons.

There was no information about whether any other New Zealanders were injured in the fire and the Government had not been briefed on reported safety concerns at the mall, Key said.

Doha News had unconfirmed reports that the top two managers of the mall had been arrested and would go to court, possibly facing charges tomorrow morning.

It is understood a stairway to the childcare centre collapsed, making it harder to reach the centre. Witnesses also said at least one exit in the mall was chained shut.

MALL MADNESS

Tarek Bazley, a former Radio New Zealand journalist working in Doha, said he was in the mall with his two children when the alarm went off.

"We were at the mall, in a large play area and a fire alarm went off. It was a very benign fire alarm, almost like a door bell. It certainly wasn't alarming like you would expect a fire alarm to be.

"I asked the attendant on the soft play area if it was something that we should be worried about. He said 'not at all. We had a fire alarm yesterday, don't worry'. So we continued," Bazley said.

"About 15 minutes later, a member of the public ran through and said 'you've got to get out, there is a fire in the mall'.

"We went out through a fire door that was luckily quite close to where we were and it was there that you could see the plumes of smoke coming out of the centre of the mall. Huge volumes of black smoke."

He said a friend was eating at a restaurant in the mall before seeing the smoke and went to the first fire escape that he noticed, only to find it was actually chained shut.

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"They then had to leave by the service exit."

Bazley said he wanted to leave quickly, but found it difficult because of the traffic.

"A lot of rubberneckers on the road and people on the nearby main street. It took us almost an hour to leave the area."

He said the minister of the interior had held a press conference, where he said there had been some malfunctioning of the alarm and sprinkler system.

"I think the key to this is the location of the [childcare facility]. It was in the centre of the mall. There were two entrances to the childcare area and I believe both of them ended up being caught in the fire.

"From what the minister of the interior said, a set of stairs fell, which meant accessing the play area was difficult, which is why they had to go in through the ceiling."

Bazley said the childcare facility was called Gympanzee. It was drop-in nursery for people who wanted to shop in the mall and needed to leave their kids for a couple of hours.

Expat New Zealander Matt Scherer said the mall's fire alarms were not working properly and people inside were unaware until the smoke engulfed it.
 
"The sad thing is it is rumoured to be [an] electrical [fault] which is another area of shocking expertise here. I hope they learn from this," he said.

THE BUILDING

''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, Qatar's Interior Minister, told reporters in Doha.

Four teachers and two civil defence officials were among the dead, the Interior Ministry said. Four Spaniards were also among the international death toll.

Another 17 people were injured, including four children, according to authorities. Most of those hurt were rescuers responding to the blaze.

The ministry said the fire was extinguished hours later. Doha is nine hours behind New Zealand.

The Villaggio opened in 2006 and is one of Qatar's most popular shopping and amusement destinations. Retailers include many well-known Western brands, such as Foot Locker, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and British department store Marks & Spencer, according to the mall's website.

Malls throughout the oil-rich Arab Gulf are popular with families looking for entertainment destinations that provide relief from soaring summer temperatures. The Villaggio includes an ice skating rink, theme park, movie theatre and indoor Venice-style gondola rides.

New construction projects such as the Villaggio have transformed the face of once-sleepy Doha in recent years, as the country benefits from a hydrocarbon boom. The OPEC member state is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Qatar won the right to host soccer's 2022 World Cup a year and a half ago.

Fairfax NZ and AP

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