Eye witnesses claim that the mall’s lack of fire and life safety systems slowed down rescue efforts
Tragedy struck Doha on Monday when 19 people, including 13 children, were killed when a fire broke out in a shopping mall nursery in the Qatari capital.
Firefighters had to break through the roof of the Gympanzee Kidz day care centre at the Villaggio Mall in order to get to the trapped children in the first floor nursery, the State Minister for the Interior said in a statement to the press. Four teachers and two firefighters were also amongst those killed, he confirmed.
“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,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani said.
Another 17 people, mostly rescue workers, were injured in the blaze, authorities said, according to a report by the UAE based National newspaper.
Eyewitness accounts posted online said that fire fighters were initially not aware that it was a nursery on fire, but responded immediately when the situation became clear. It is estimated that it took 20 minutes to reach the children, who were trapped by a collapsed staircase. The two fire fighters perished at this point, reports say.
A government official told Qatar TV that a collapsed ceiling, heavy smoke and high temperatures further complicated fire fighting efforts, with “many dangers obstructing us [fire fighting crews]”.
While the cause of the fire is unknown at present, the mall has come in for criticism as emergency workers were hampered by floor plans that did not have the right markings for entry and emergency exits, the National reported.
Furthermore, shoppers and eye witnesses complained to local media that the mall’s alarms and sprinklers were not functioning properly. Representatives from Villaggio Mall did not attend the news conference so these claims could not be verified.
Christine Wigton, an American expatriate in Doha, told CNN that she had heard a buzzer go off, but that ‘it was not very loud’.
“When I got a little closer I realised the smoke was just increasing and people were still shopping. And the smoke kept getting heavier and heavier.”
She added that she had seen elementary school age children eating at some of the restaurants, but that there had been no attempt to evacuate them.
“There were no sprinklers and nothing that would tell people that something was wrong.”
A relative of a two year old boy who died in the blaze told Reuters that there had been a lack of fire safety measures in the mall.
“There did not seem to be any fire alarms or sprinklers at the mall,” he said from Qatar’s Hamad hospital.
The victims included people from Spain, Japan, Benin, the Philippines and Arab countries, not including Qatar, officials said.
Sheikh Abullah bin Nasser Al Thani confirmed that public prosecution would take charge of the investigated and that a ‘broader investigation into the safety requirements in buildings would be held.’
The mall would remain closed indefinitely, he added.