29 May 2012

NZ triplets killed in Doha mall fire

10:44 pm on 29 May 2012

The Qatari government has launched an investigation into a fire at a Doha mall which killed 19 people including young triplets from New Zealand.

The inquiry comes amid unconfirmed reports that two senior managers at the Villagio Mall are to be arrested.

Wellington-born triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes, aged 2 , were among 13 children who died after a fire broke out at their daycare centre on Monday.

About 20 children were at the Gympanzee daycare centre on the first floor of the complex when fire ripped through the building about 11.30am (local time). Firefighters had to break through the roof to get to the trapped children.

The triplets' grandfather, Ron Turner, says his daughter Jane Weekes phoned him from Qatar with the news shortly after the fire. The toddlers had been enrolled at the daycare centre for about three months.

Mr Turner says her daughter and husband Martin are numbed by the loss, but have many friends in Doha who are providing great support. Mr Turner says he and his wife will leave Auckland on Tuesday night to be with the couple.

The Ministry of the Interior has set up a special committee to investigate the mall's safety regulations and allegations that fire crews did not respond quickly enough.

A former Radio New Zealand journalist who was at the shopping centre on Monday said there was a complete lack of planning and co-ordination to the evacuation.

Tarek Bazley said he heard a fire alarm, but officials told him there was no cause for concern and it was not until a member of the public ran through the mall and raised the alarm that they realised half the building was on fire.

Both entrances to the daycare centre were blocked by smoke and children were being evacuated through a hole fire crews had to cut in the roof, he said.

Mr Bazley said it is rumoured that two senior managers at the mall will soon be formally charged in relation to the fire.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said there would be a full investigation in time and there are some very serious questions that need to be answered. Brian Chambers, the First Secretary of the New Zealand embassy in Saudi Arabia, is flying to Doha to assist the family.

Cause not yet known

It is not clear what caused the blaze at the upmarket mall in west Doha.

The Ministry of the Interior earlier said emergency services reached the mall within minutes of being alerted to the blaze.

However, the absence of floor plans and malfunctioning sprinklers, along with the intense heat, slowed fire crews down and they did not realise that children were trapped until some time later.

The mall opened in 2006 and is one of the most popular shopping and recreational complexes in the small Gulf state that is home to many expatriates.

A ministry official said none of the dead were Qataris.