AFP — Firefighters in Qatar told Wednesday how they tried to rescue 13 children trapped by a blaze in a mall nursery but by the time they reached the toddlers most were dead, huddled in the arms of two fellow firemen who perished during the rescue attempt.
The inferno at Doha's Villagio mall on Monday killed 19 foreigners, including 13 children, four teachers, and the two firemen. The authorities have ordered that the mall owner and four other senior mall staff be arrested, reports said.
As smoke and flames surrounded the nursery, two of the four teachers sent farewell text messages and made their final calls to family letting them know they would not be coming home.
"I'm dying," one of the three Filipino teachers trapped in the fire told her aunt in a text message before she succumbed, according to Marilyn Evangelista, the victim's friend interviewed on the Al-Jazeera English television channel.
Another teacher, also from the Philippines, called her husband to tell him that she and the children were "trapped, the smoke is too thick," according to Evangelista who then broke down in tears.
Abdel Khaleq al-Huwari, one of dozens of firemen who responded to the blaze, told AFP that the rescue teams were not informed about the existence of a nursery in the mall "until half an hour after" they arrived on the scene.
He said that a mall employee eventually told them that there was a nursery on the first floor of the shopping complex.
Huwari was one of the first in the nursery after the fire had died down and said he found his Moroccan colleague, Husam Shahboun, lying dead on the floor "holding two children in his arms."
"The other (Iranian) firefighter was barely alive when we found him," said Huwari. "We tried to save him but he died."
Several other children lay around the firefighters, all dead, said Shahboun.
Another firefighter, Amran Mohsen, told AFP that "some of the fire alarms were not working."
Late Tuesday, Qatar's official QNA news agency said that Attorney General, Ali bin Futeis Al-Murri, "ordered the arrest of the Villagio mall owner … its manager and its deputy manager."
It said that warrants had also been issued for the arrests of the deputy director of mall security and for the owner of the Gympanzee nursery where the children and teachers died.
The report did not specify if any charges have been filed against any of the five.
The arrest orders came hours after relatives and friends bade a tearful farewell to the victims at a moving ceremony on Tuesday.
New Zealand triplets and three Spanish siblings were among the children who died. The Iranian and Moroccan firefighters died while trying to evacuate the nursery.
But media reports grew on Wednesday that the tragedy occurred due to negligence.
Citing an unnamed official from Qatar's Ministry of Social Affairs, the influential local daily, Al-Raya, said the Gympanzee nursery on the first floor of the mall where all 19 victims suffocated to death was "not licensed."
The official said the ministry "never authorized the establishment of a nursery or kindergarten in the Villagio mall," the Al-Raya report quoted him as saying.
On Wednesday, local and international media networks cited witnesses claiming that some of the sprinklers in the mall malfunctioned and fire exit doors were locked.
Other testimonies pointed to a slow and inefficient response from mall employees in the initial moments after the fire broke out.
Video footage of the blaze shows firefighters at the scene trying to reach the trapped children and nursery staff through a hole they tore in the roof of the mall.
Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has ordered a commission to investigate the tragedy, the Doha-based network reported.
So far, no official statement on the cause of the fire has been released.
The deaths drove hundreds of both Qatari and foreign nationals to a vigil in Aspire park near the partially destroyed Villagio late Tuesday as mourners lit candles and posted notes in honor of the fallen victims and their grieving families.
In attendance were Jane and Martin Weekes, parents of the New Zealand triplets whose pictures were plastered across newspapers in the Gulf Wednesday.
Consoled by friends, the grieving parents wept, clutching their children’s toys in their hands.
"Lillie, Jackson and Willsher came into this world together and were inseparable as siblings, best friends and the joy of our life," the couple said in a statement.
"Tragically they left together after only two short years. A time that was lived to the full everyday with us laughing, playing, waking us at all hours of the night and simply being the sunshine in our world."
A dozen or so fellow New Zealanders performed a ceremonial Haka dance of New Zealand's Maori people in honor of the dead.