Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the APNZ News Service office in Wellington.

Doha fire: Parents asked 'horrible' questions

New Zealand triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Parents of children killed in the Doha Mall fire last year say they have been attacked by defence lawyers in a hearing to determine responsibility for the 19 deaths.

A trial in a Qatari court heard arguments overnight (NZT) that Gympanzee, the facility in the Villaggio mall where 13 children were being looked after, was a nursery and could have violated its commercial licence.

All defendants attended the hearing, including Gympanzee co-owners, four Villaggio mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business and Trade, the Doha News reported.

New Zealand triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes, aged 2, were among the 13 children killed. Four teachers and two firefighters also died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in the blaze in May last year.

Documentation showed that Gympanzee was licensed by the Ministry of Business and Trade for six business activities, including as a play room for children.

But all four parents of children killed in the fire who testified overnight said the business operated as a daycare centre. They presented receipts, monthly contracts and photos of signage and literature of Gympanzee referring to itself as a nursery.

The distinction was important, parents told Doha News, because if it was a properly licensed nursery, Civil Defence officials would have been aware that there were children inside and worked to get them out quickly.

Firefighters have previously said they did not initially know that the mall had a nursery or that children were trapped inside.

Parents said they felt insulted and attacked by the questions posed to them during the hearing, which included inquiries about their whereabouts during the fire, how they found out about their children's deaths and why they chose to enrol their children at Gympanzee.

"They asked me horrible questions," one mother told Doha News. "Like, 'did you know if your daughter was dead at 12 o'clock'?"

Another mother said they felt like we were the accused and it was their mistake.

"They're telling us, 'you're responsible for their deaths'. Unbelievable," she said.

Defence lawyers for the Gympanzee owners pointed out the business also charged hourly babysitting rates and rented its space for birthday parties on the weekends - activities not usually conducted by a daycare.

They suggested the fault lay with Civil Defence and its failed rescue attempts, as well as Villaggio mall officials for not shoring up safety standards.

After last month's hearing, Martin Weekes, father of the New Zealand triplets, said: "What is now happening in the courts is the defendants are all blaming each other and blaming the Government (Civil Defence & Ministry of Business & Trade) - none of this helps the families have closure."

Remaining witnesses, which include a firefighter, a Gympanzee teacher and the husband of a teacher who was killed, will testify later this month.

- APNZ

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