New Zealand triplets have died in a devastating fire which killed 19 people in a shopping mall in Qatar, the family has confirmed.
Two-year-old Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes were among the 13 children killed in the fire which broke out in the Villaggio Mall in Doha.
Their parents Jane and Martin Weekes had earlier lived in Wellington. Martin Weekes is a former CEO of Eden Park.
The triplets' grandfather, Ron Turner, told Radio New Zealand the toddlers started attending the mall's daycare only two or three months ago.
He said his daughter, Jane Weekes, contacted him shortly after the fire, and she and her husband Martin are numbed by the loss.
Mrs Weekes' mother, Jo Turner, told Fairfax she was devastated when her daughter rang but didn't press her for information.
"It was just that 'our babies they died in a fire at the day care centre'.
Mrs Turner said her daughter lived in Qatar for about five years. She returned to New Zealand for the birth of the triplets.
"They were everything to her. She was a great mum. She was a hands-on mum,'' she said.
Earlier Prime Minister John Key confirmed three children died in the fire in Doha and they were believed to be triplets.
He said this morning the children were in a nursery or creche at the time.
Their grandparents were travelling to Qatar from New Zealand this evening and New Zealand Foreign Affairs consular staff were also on their way to support the family.
He said New Zealand Foreign Affairs staff were travelling to Doha from Saudi Arabia to provide support.
"Their family are obviously dealing with the terrible grief that they have at this time. Obviously it's a very tragic day for that family."
At least some of the victims died as rescuers struggled to reach a child care center at the Villaggio mall in the capital Doha, according to Qatar's Minister of State for Interior Affairs, Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani.
Firefighters had to break through the roof to get to trapped children after a staircase to the first-floor nursery collapsed, he added.
"We tried our best, but when we got there, the children were trapped inside. We are very sorry for what happened. We tried as much as we could to save these people,'' Sheik Abdullah told reporters in Doha.
Doha News have already named several of the victims, including a Moroccan firefighter and a civil defence rescuer.
When the mall was evacuated, distraught parents were forced to stay outside waiting to find out what had happened to their children at the daycare centre.
One woman wept as she told television reporters she thought her children were still in the mall.
"All of us here outside we know that our families inside.
"It's Monday now and all our kids is there (sic).''
KIWI DESCRIBES BEING IN THE MALL AS FIRE BREAKS OUT
New Zealand journalist Tarek Bazley, who lives 1km from the mall in Doha, was in another part of the mall with his children when the fire broke out.
"The first thing I heard of it was a very benign fire alarm, it sounded more like a doorbell to be honest, repeating in the background,'' he told Radio New Zealand.
After 15 minutes he asked an attendant whether he should be worried, but was told to "sit tight'' and that it was usually a false alarm.
"About 10 minutes later, someone else, a member of the public, raced through this area and said, 'Everybody out, you've got to get out now. The other half of the mall is on fire.' That is what he said to me.''
Bazley and his children left the building and could see an "extraordinary volume of black smoke coming out of the centre of this mall''.
"The volume of smoke coming out of it, it looked like you had 30 steam trains all pumping their smoke out above it.''
Bazley said he wanted to leave the area as quickly as he could with his children but was stopped from doing so.
"There was no access route on the road, it was absolutely rammed with people. A lot of rubberneckers on the road going past, and a complete lack of planning, a complete lack of co-ordination in terms of removing people from this area.''
Bazley said the daycare area was a casual drop-in centre.
"I believe the problem was that once the fire took in the area near the nursery, there was no way to actually escape.''
Both exits were blocked by smoke, he said.
Bazley said Qatar interior ministry press conference was told firefighters had no plan of the mall and did not know where the daycare centre was.
The alarm and sprinkler system appeared to have malfunctioned.
DIFFICULTY IN GETTING TO CHILDREN
Dense smoke inside the mall combined with the fierce temperature from the flames made reaching the trapped children very difficult, a representative of the civil defence told a news conference.
Health Minister Khaled al-Qahtani said 17 people were injured in the blaze, mostly firefighters.
Witnesses earlier reported thick black smoke pouring from the ritzy mall around midday local time. Amateur photos and videos posted online showed firefighters rescuing victims by climbing on the roof.
The Interior Ministry said the fire was extinguished hours later.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
MALL SAFETY QUESTIONED
Sheik Abdullah said all buildings in the country abide by safety requirements, but a special committee will nonetheless be set up to monitor building safety standards, according to the ministry's Twitter feed.
A reader who lives near the Villagio told the nzherald.co.nz it was the third fire incident in the mall in the past 18 months.
The Villaggio opened in 2006 and is one of Qatar's most popular shopping and amusement destinations. Retailers include many well-known Western brands, such as Foot Locker, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and British department store Marks & Spencer, according to the mall's website.
Malls throughout the oil-rich Arab Gulf are popular with families looking for entertainment destinations that provide relief from soaring summer temperatures. The Villaggio includes an ice skating rink, theme park, movie theater and indoor Venice-style gondola rides.
New construction projects such as the Villaggio have transformed the face of once-sleepy Doha in recent years, as the country benefits from a hydrocarbon boom. The OPEC member state is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
Qatar won the right to host soccer's 2022 World Cup a year and a half ago.
- Herald Online, APNZ and agencies