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Monday, October 25, 2021

Villaggio fire: More pieces of the puzzle emerge


Five days after the Villaggio fire, more pieces of the puzzle that led to the deaths of 19 people – including 13 children – are emerging, despite a lack of official updates from the Ministry of Interior on the investigation.

Of the five people ordered arrested last week, at least two are out of detention.

Mall manager Tzoulios Tzouliou, a 48-year-old British expat, is under “house arrest,” reports the Sun. Doha police said yesterday that Tzouliou was not technically under arrest but was being “detained.” He is being held in a secure property, but not a jail.

Gympanzee owner Iman Al Kuwari is also out of detention, but has been in the hospital, an employee told us. She declined to say why, but added that Kuwari is doing fine.

Questions about Gympanzee

Misinformation continues to swirl in the tragedy’s aftermath, but we now know a few additional details. Gympanzee, where all 19 people perished, was not licensed with the Social Affairs Ministry as a nursery, but it has proven that it did register as a children’s play area.

In theory, both nurseries and play areas are zoned for children to be in, and should have equally rigorous safety standards.

But experts have told the Peninsula that isn’t the case, saying malls and shopping facilities don’t require official permission for children’s play areas and are not held to the same stringent safety standards as nurseries:

Equally shocking is the discovery that the staff members manning these play areas can just be workers who need no training in tackling emergencies like fire. The safety of children, therefore, being suspect in these play areas now, an increasing number of parents say they wouldn’t trust their toddlers with these facilities.

Gympanzee staff Doha News has spoken with, however, say they were trained in safety and emergency healthcare procedures. They add that the main reason the children weren’t evacuated immediately is because when one of the teachers asked mall security about the smoke, they were told it was under control.

Another crucial issue that makes the nursery versus play area distinction theoretically relevant is that the Social Affairs Ministry earlier this year implemented strict rules saying nurseries must be located on the ground floor, whereas Gympanzee was on the first floor of Villaggio.

In practice, though, a number of nurseries we’ve visited continue to operate with two- or three-floor premises.

Questions also abound – and are put to us regularly on Facebook and Twitter – about whether Gympanzee had two exits.

It did, in fact, have an emergency exit, but both the front and back door led into the same hallway, which was choked with smoke and heat and prevented the teachers and students from escaping by the time they realized the fire was becoming more severe.

The dense smoke may have been a result of possible “design flaws” that investigators are examining, the Associated Press has reported.

Fireman’s view

Another common question is why firefighters, who are equipped with safety gear, died of smoke inhalation while trying to rescue the children.

One man who has worked as a firefighter for the Doha International Airport for three decades explained to the Peninsula that firefighters were still vulnerable to smoke and heat because breathing apparatuses must be refilled with oxygen at periodic intervals to function.

“Normally a rescue worker should retreat after 45 minutes so that he will not be exhausted and the person on reserve can take his position. During the operation, he will be monitored by an entry control officer through an electronic key. If the person is in danger, he can give an alarm pressing a button on the safety gear. If he becomes inactive for a while, the gadget he wears will produce an automatic alarm,’ said (Ahmed) Sultan.

Meanwhile, Villaggio employees tell us they are not allowed inside the mall, not even to collect laptops or important documents. They have also been instructed not to talk to the press pending the outcome of the investigation, mall employees have told us.

Safety problems

Questions about who will pay for the untold amounts of damage have also been raised. That remains a mystery, with Al Raya reporting that no malls in Qatar have had third-party insurance for the past decade due to a failure to meet safety standards.

Highlighting this, a video from a year ago shows young people trying to set off Villaggio’s fire alarm as a prank, only to find nothing happens:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fg5TBBTxw0w]

We’ll keep you updated as we find out more.

What other questions are on your mind? 

Credit: Photo by nkhairil79

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