Witnesses testify at criminal hearing on causes of Villaggio fire
With reporting from Layal Fawaz Itawi
After a slow start, the trial to determine criminal responsibility in the Villaggio fire that killed 19 people in May has gotten well underway, with witnesses giving testimony for several hours today. Much of it highlighted mall officials’ mistakes.
A total of 10 people, including three Civil Defense officials; a firefighter; two employees of Gympanzee, where all the deaths took place; three parents of the children killed; and the husband of one of the four fallen teachers were expected to testify during this morning’s hearing.
But only the first three witnesses, one of whom was questioned for more than two hours, were heard due to time constraints. The trial will resume on Jan. 3.
The hearing had previously been postponed four times before all defendants showed up to court.
Today, all attended the hearing, including the Gympanzee co-owners, four Villaggio mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business & Trade. 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.
Three Civil Defense officers fielded questions well into the afternoon from defense attorneys and the public prosecution about the cause of the May 28 fire and the handling of it.
Issues with Villaggio
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 smoldering clothes from the Nike store, was the cause of the heavy smoke that spread to the nearby play area, asphyxiating 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.
The mall defense attorney responded with questions about whether the maintenance companies and Gympanzee met their responsibilities.
Civil Defense also admitted that the firefighters at the scene were not necessarily properly trained to handle the fire.
Witness testimony is expected to resume on Jan. 3, and the slow-going doesn’t appear to have discouraged some of the victim’s family members.
“At least they’re doing their job,” Louie Aban, widower of late Gympanzee employee Maribel Orosco, who sat outside the courtroom all day waiting to testify, told Doha News. “It could take a long time but all I care (about) is that they’re doing their job now.”
Credit: Photo by Omar Chatriwala