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Trial begins over deadly Doha mall fire

Published: 7:43AM Thursday December 20, 2012 Source: ONE News

The trial has finally begun of those charged over a shopping mall fire in Qatar that killed 19 people including New Zealand triplets in May.

Thirteen children, including triplets Lillie, Wilsher and Jackson Weekes, four teachers, and two firefighters were killed in the fire at the Villaggio Mall in Doha on May 28.

Doha News reported that all seven defendants attended the hearing, including the co-owners of the Gympanzee creche where all the victims died, four Villaggio mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business and Trade.

The hearing to determine criminal responsibility for the fire had previously been postponed four times before all defendants showed up to court.

Much of the testimony highlighted alleged mistakes by mall officials.

Ten people, including three Civil Defence officials, a firefighter, two employees of Gympanzee, three parents of the children killed and the husband of one of the four deceased teachers were expected to testify.

But only the first three witnesses, one of whom was questioned for more than two hours, were heard due to time constraints, Doha News reported.

Gympanzee's lawyer called for all charges to be dropped against his clients. He also requested that an employee of the Nike store where the fire originated be added as a defendant.

Issues with mall

Three Civil Defence officers fielded questions from defence attorneys and the public prosecution about the cause of the fire and the handling of it, Doha news said.

According to the officers' testimony, Villaggio has been 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 officers asserted that the chemical, coupled with the cold air from the air conditioning, was the cause of the heavy smoke that spread to the nearby play area, asphyxiating the 13 children, four teachers, and two firefighters trying to save them.

Sprinklers would have stopped the smoke, one officer said, but they didn't appear to be functioning. Additionally, Villaggio officials did not respond to requests from the fire alarm and sprinkler system companies to perform much-needed maintenance on the mall equipment, the officers said.

Former TVNZ reporter Alexi O'Brien said one Civil Defence man, describing the day of the fire, said that the smoke in the creche was so thick he couldn't breathe.

He also said he found fire extinguishers were not ready to fight the fire, that ventilation wasn't good enough and that he found a number of systems should have been improved upon.

Response

The mall defence attorney responded with questions about whether the maintenance companies and Gympanzee met their responsibilities.

Civil Defence also admitted that the firefighters at the scene were not necessarily properly trained to handle the fire.

Witness testimony is expected to resume on January 3, and the slow-going doesn't appear to have discouraged some of the victim's family members, Doha News said.

"At least they're doing their job," said Louie Aban, widower of late Gympanzee employee Maribel Orosco, who sat outside the courtroom all day waiting to testify.

"It could take a long time but all I care (about) is that they're doing their job now."

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