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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Parents of Villaggio fire victims fume over questions at hearing



It was an emotional day of witness testimony as the criminal hearing to determine responsibility for the 19 deaths in the Villaggio fire resumed.

All defendants attended the hearing, including Gympanzee co-owners, four Villaggio mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business & Trade. 

Whether Gympanzee violated the terms of its commercial license was among the main issues during today’s session. The mall nursery is where 13 children, four teachers and two firefighters died of smoke inhalation after being trapped upstairs. 

Documentation shows that Gympanzee was licensed by the Ministry of Business and Trade for six business activities, including as a play room for children.

imageBut all four parents of children killed in the fire who testified today said that the business operated as a daycare. To the panel of judges, they presented receipts, monthly contracts and photos of signage and literature of Gympanzee referring to itself as a nursery.

The distinction is important, parents told Doha News, because if it was a properly licensed nursery, Civil Defense officials would have been aware that there were children inside of Villaggio and worked to get them out quickly. Previously, firefighters said they did not initially know that the mall had a nursery or that children were trapped inside.

Blame game

The Gympnanzee co-owners’ defense lawyer attempted to poke holes in the parents’ arguments by pointing out that the business also charged hourly babysitting rates and rented its space for birthday parties on the weekends – activities not usually conducted by a daycare.

The fault, he suggested, lies with Civil Defense and its failed rescue attempts, as well as Villaggio mall officials for not shoring up safety standards.

During last month’s hearing, three Civil Defense officials testified that the mall was repeatedly fined for using a highly flammable paint in its mall decorations, which, when ignited, causes fire to spread quickly and is difficult to contain.

The chemical contributed to smoke in the mall that sprinklers could have stopped, but they didn’t appear to be functioning, an officer had testified.

‘Horrible questions’

For their part, parents said they felt insulted and attacked by the questions posed to them during today’s hearing, which included inquiries about their whereabouts during the fire, how they found out about their children’s deaths and why they chose to enroll their kids in Gympanzee.

“They asked me horrible questions,” one of the mothers of the deceased children told Doha News. “Like, ‘did you know if your daughter was dead at 12 o’clock?’ “

“It was very frustrating for us,” another mother said. “We felt like we were the accused, that it was our mistake. They’re telling us, ‘you’re responsible for their deaths.’ Unbelievable,” she said.

After last month’s hearing, Martin Weekes, father of the triplets killed in the fire, told Doha News

“What is now happening in the courts is the defendants are all blaming each other and blaming the Government (Civil Defense & Ministry of Business & Trade)  – none of this helps the families have closure.”

A Gympanzee employee, an official from the Ministry of Business and Trade and a firefighter also testified during today’s hearing.

The remaining witnesses, which include a firefighter, a Gympanzee teacher and the husband of a teacher who was killed, will testify on Jan. 23. 

Credit: Top photo by Omar Chatriwala; second photo courtesy of Gympanzee on Facebook

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