With reporting from Zena Tahhan
Dangerous lightbulbs, a heartbreaking rescue attempt and more arguments over culpability were the main issues covered during today’s hearing to determine criminal responsibility for the 19 deaths caused by the Villaggio fire.
During almost six hours of testimony, the lower criminal court heard from seven witnesses, including Qatar’s fire chief, a Gympanzee employee, a coroner, an official with the Ministry of Social Affairs, two firefighters and the husband of an employee killed in the blaze.
This was the eighth hearing about the fire.
The first witness, the fire chief with 22 years of experience, presented the results of an internal investigation into the fire. He testified that a malfunction caused a fluorescent lightbulb in the Nike shop to burst. Pieces of the bulb fell onto boxes of rubber-soled shoes and sporting equipment, igniting them and the shop. The fire then spread to the mall, he said.
He added that the type of light bulb in question is not safe, but is one that is widely used in Qatar. The bulb’s components are flammable and have been a common cause of fires here, he said.
The fire chief, who was not the direct author of the report, fielded questions for over two hours as defense attorneys accused his department of making errors and reaching conclusions not supported by physical evidence.
A forensic doctor from the Ministry of Interior also testified today, explaining that examinations were conducted on the 19 victims of the fire the evening of the fire. All were found with ash on their clothes and in their noses and mouths, indicating that they died of suffocation from smoke.
Other witnesses were asked about the business purpose of Gympanzee, and whether it operated as a nursery without the proper licensing.
A former employee affirmed that teachers there had emergency preparedness training, and clarified that the center had an emergency exit on the first floor, where the children played. But that exit also led down the stairs and back into the mall, where the blaze raged.
She added that the nursery had no windows or ventilation. Other witnesses also testified that a lack of ventilation contributed to the accumulation of smoke in the center.
The most compelling testimony of the day was given by Louie Aban, the 32-year-old husband of Maribel Orosco, 29, an accountant at Gympanzee. According to Aban, now a single father, Orosco called him three times during the fire before she died.
When he got the first call at 11:05am, he heard a lot of noise in the background. Orosco told him there was a fire in the mall and to come immediately to help them. He instructed his wife to wet some clothes, place them over the mouths of the children and run down the stairs, but Orosco said the smoke in the hallway was too thick.
After that call, Aban left work to drive over to Villaggio. While in his car, he received two more calls from his wife. “Drive fast, come fast!” Orosco told him, as he heard sounds of crying in the background.
When asked why she was telling him to come, Aban responded: “[Because] no one will help them.”
At 11:26am, as Aban was passing Hyatt Plaza and almost to Villaggio, Orosco called one last time, to say goodbye.
“She told me she had to ‘let go,’” Aban said, adding that her breathing sounded labored. “I told her, ‘don’t.’”
When Aban arrived at Villaggio, police barred him from going into the mall. Iman Al Kuwari, Gympanzee’s co-owner, and Orosco’s brother both also tried, but were not allowed, to go inside. Aban said he told officers that his wife and several children were trapped inside, “but they kept saying ‘no problem.’”
Nearly two hours later, unable to locate Gympanzee, firefighters suited up Aban so that he could show them the way. But by that time, the air was too hot and the smoke too thick to make it inside the nursery. Instead, officers began taking the victims out through the roof, and Aban later found his wife in the Hamad Medical Corp. mortuary.
Additional witnesses are to be called to give testimony next week on Jan. 30.
Credit: Top photo courtesy of Louie Aban, second photo by Brian Candy