Investigators in Qatar yesterday scoured for clues as to the cause of a fire that whipped through a shopping mall killing 19 people, including New Zealand triplets and 10 other children trapped in a nursery.
Newspapers in the Gulf state raised questions over the licensing of a nursery in the middle of a huge mall, where the children and four teachers, including three from the Philippines and one South African, died of smoke inhalation.
In Wellington, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand triplets, believed to be three-year-olds, were among those who died in the inferno.
The children’s grandparents were flying to Qatar to support the family and New Zealand consular officials were offering assistance, he added, describing the incident as “a great tragedy.”
Four of the youngsters who died were Spanish, said a foreign ministry spokeswoman in Madrid, while Paris announced that a three-year-old French child also perished.
Two civil defense personnel also died, the Qatari interior ministry said.
Footage posted online showed black smoke billowing from the upmarket, Venice-themed complex as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. Other pictures showed rescue workers carrying children on the roof of the mall.
The fire broke out at the Gympanzee nursery, or possibly near it.
“The first report of fire at Villaggio was received by the operations center at 11:02am,” Qatari State Minister for the Interior Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani said, according to the QNA state news agency, adding that police and civil defense reached the site within minutes.
He said it became clear that 20 children were at the first-floor nursery and “all efforts were concentrated on evacuating those kids,” adding 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 defense representative told a news conference.
Expatriate New Zealand journalist Tarek Bazley said he was in the shopping center with his two children when the fire broke out, 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.
However, he said there was a lack of urgency from officials in the mall when alarms went off and complained of a “complete lack of planning, a complete lack of coordination in terms of removing people from this area.”
Qatari Health Minister Khaled al-Qahtani said all the fatalities were caused by asphyxiation, adding that 17 people were injured, mostly firefighters.
Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ordered a special commission set up to probe the blaze, the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV station reported.
“Did this nursery meet the conditions to get a license,” said Al-Watan daily, addressing its question to the Ministry of Social Affairs. “We await answers over how it was allowed that kids of such age could be at a place not sufficiently equipped.”
“It is negligence that is resembles a premeditated murder,” charged Saleh al-Kawari, editor-in-chief of Al-Raya daily in his editorial.
“This is a real catastrophe,” he said.