As Gulf state faces questions over its preparations for the World Cup, couple who lost their children in mall fire tell of their fight of truth
It is a tragic final photograph, capturing the last moment that Jane Weekes saw her three children alive.
Taken almost as an afterthought on a bustling Monday morning, she had just dropped the triplets at their nursery and turned back for a quick photograph on her telephone before going to an exercise class.
Less than two hours later, Lillie, Willsher and Jackson, aged two years and two months, were trapped inside the nursery as a fire broke out below in Qatar’s upmarket, Venice-themed Villaggio Mall. The triplets, with 10 other children and their four carers, could not escape clouds of toxic smoke because an emergency exit was blocked from the outside. None survived.
More than a year and a half later, Mrs Weekes can barely contain her grief as she recalls that final glance back at her children:
“It was just a quick picture from the door when I left. They were sitting together in matching Disneyland T-shirts. I had no idea it would be the worst day of our lives.”
The fire of May 28 2012 left unfathomable scars among the families of the victims, expatriates from 11 countries including the United States, France, Spain, South Africa and China.
But it has also left them with an increasingly desperate and unfinished quest for justice and for the truth about the nursery, a virtual tinderbox owned by a member of the ruling family, Sheikh Ali Bin Jasim Bin Al Thani, 44, Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, and his wife, Iman al-Kuwari, the daughter of the culture minister.
As Qatar prepares to host the football World Cup in 2022, the case of the Villaggio fire raises questions about the Gulf state’s safety standards, its ability to handle emergencies, its court system and the role of the government in blocking the truth about an “embarrassing” disaster.
Qatar – a nation of two million people – is already facing deepening criticism of the treatment of unskilled foreign labourers, including reports that migrants at World Cup sites have been abused and overworked and that dozens have died. They have promised independent inquires into the deaths.
But in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mrs Weekes, 39, and her British-born husband, Martin, 48, say they have no faith in the investigations by Qatari authorities and have spoken about their ordeal and the litany of failures in the tiny Gulf state.
Sitting in their quiet sun-filled home in Auckland, the couple told how they moved from New Zealand to Qatar in 2007, where Mr Weekes worked for a commercial media firm and Mrs Weekes for an airline.
They enjoyed the camaraderie among the expatriate community and valued Qatar’s family-oriented culture as they began to raise their three children.
On the day of the fire, Mrs Weekes dropped the triplets at the mall at 9am and stayed for their morning snack before going to the gym.
Shortly before 11am, inside the store room of a Nike shop at the Villaggio, an illegal fluorescent light fitting melted on to a pile of clothing and started a fire.
The mall, it later emerged, was painted with flammable paint, was built with flammable decorative mouldings, had no sprinklers and its back-up water pump was broken. The authorities had fined the mall in 2007 but the safety breaches were never fixed.
The fire in the Nike store quickly spread. Across town, Mr Weekes was in a meeting when a colleague showed him a picture on Twitter showing the Villaggio on fire.
He contacted his wife, who ran back to see clouds of smoke streaming from the roof above the nursery, with no sign of any of the children outside.
An emergency medical worker sat calmly in his vehicle and told her the fire was out. It later emerged that the crews learnt that children were trapped half an hour after arriving at the mall.
“It was frightening,” she said. “He was busy telling me there was no problem, everything is fine. He couldn’t answer me about where the children from the nursery were, if they had got out.”
Mr Weekes drove to a second exit and joined other parents desperately hoping to see a familiar face emerge.
The scene was panicked and chaotic, with fire and emergency crews aimlessly milling outside the building and the families of those inside the nursery screaming and wailing. “Our kids stood no chance,” Mr Weekes recalled. “The emergency services had failed to evacuate the building… Once I saw them bringing the first children out, I thought, it’s a no-go.”
Shortly after 1pm, Mr Weekes saw a rescue worker emerge from the building gripping a blonde girl, who hung – “limp like a rag doll” – from his arms. It was Lillie.
Mr Weekes called his wife to accompany Lillie while he waited for signs of the boys.
“Lillie was really small,” she said, pausing for strength and crying as she recalled what happened next.
“She was two – she was a peanut. They were doing CPR and chest compressions and using a face mask to try to get oxygen into her, but the face mask that they were using was far too big for an infant so it wouldn’t get a seal properly around her mouth… They gave her a couple of shots of adrenalin while we were in the ambulance which didn’t have any effect.”
At the hospital, Lillie was taken away from her mother, who was told “everything will be fine”.
Mr Weekes stayed at the mall for another two hours trying to find his two boys, but joined his wife at the hospital only to be told to go to the morgue.
“It was our worst nightmare coming true,” Mr Weekes said. “But we still wanted some hope that they were alive.”
At the morgue, he was shown photographs on a mobile telephone of each of the dead children and asked to identify the triplets. “Lillie and Jackson were easy because they had blond hair, blue eyes – no mistaking them,” he said. “Wilshire would also be easy because he had ginger, strawberry blond hair, really curly, really distinctive, but there was no child with strawberry blond hair. But there was a child who – who looked similar.”
He was shown a child’s body completely swaddled. The face was disfigured and the hair, unlike Wilshire’s, was brown. Mr Weekes said he thought it was his son but the morgue attendant insisted that the body was that of a girl.
After a fruitless search through the hospital, Mr Weekes returned to the morgue and again the attendant showed him the same body as earlier and insisted that it was a girl.
“I said, 'No, unwrap the swaddle’,” he recalled. “As soon as they did and I saw Will’s Disneyland T-shirt, I knew it was him. The soot and everything had changed the colour of his hair, and his face was really swollen.”
On June 4, their fifth wedding anniversary, the couple returned to New Zealand on the same plane as their three dead children. Mrs Weekes wanted to dress the triplets for the last time, but discovered that the hospital in Qatar had failed to embalm their bodies.
Funerals took place across the world for the children of the Villaggio mall, but they marked the beginning of a second struggle for the grieving families, as they battled to uncover the truth and seek justice amid growing evidence of criminal failures that led to the fire.
At court hearings, it emerged that the owners and supervisors of the mall had been warned for years about its flaws. The nursery was improperly licensed, had not been adequately inspected and failed to comply with safety standards.
Immediately after the fire, an official investigation concluded – according to a summary – that the nursery was “unsafe” and that government authorities failed to ensure basic safety at the mall and “other buildings in Qatar”. Despite repeated requests by foreign governments, the Qataris have never released the report. Mr and Mrs Weekes say they were personally promised its release by the then Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, now the nation’s ruler.
The owner of the nursery repeatedly failed to turn up to court. He remains Qatar’s ambassador despite being convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to jail terms. He appeared in photographs with Baroness Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, in Belgium in October 2012 on the day of a criminal hearing in Qatar at which he did not appear.
The chairman of the mall, a mall manager and an official from Qatar’s ministry of trade and business were also sentenced to prison. All are appealing and none has spent any time in jail.
The defendants were ordered to pay “blood money” of 200,000 Qatari Riyals (£33,500) to each of the victims’ families; none has received anything.
Meanwhile, as Qatar proceeds with large-scale construction, there are concerns about its failure to ensure that such a tragedy will not recur.
Mr Weekes, the former head of Eden Park stadium, New Zealand’s largest sports stadium, raised his concerns last year with Hassan al-Thawadi, Qatar’s chief World Cup coordinator. Mr Thawadi wrote a letter expressing condolences and pledged to take up the concerns with the authorities in Qatar and to respond “as soon as possible”. He never did so.
“Ensuring that Qatar can be relied upon to stage a safe and secure Fifa World Cup in 2022 has always been at the forefront of our thinking,” Mr Thawadi wrote. “We are taking every precaution ... to leave behind a legacy for the nation in the fields of safety and security and to ensure that what happened on 28th May 2012 is never allowed to happen again.”
Mr Weekes said: “This is a country that months before [the fire] had spent $254 million on a painting by Cézanne – but it can’t afford a $5 oxygen mask for an ambulance. [It] sums up the mall. It is all shiny and glittery on the outside but there is no substance underneath it. It has shown that if you are the right people, a member of the ruling family, nobody does the correct enforcement and you can just get away with anything.”
Mr and Mrs Weekes have never been back to Qatar. They returned to live in Auckland and five months ago had twins, Poppy and Parker. “To have three children in your in life for just over two years and for them to be gone… it was just so unfathomably empty,” Mrs Weekes said. “We miss the [triplets] just as much now as we did coming home from the hospital to an empty house.”
Mr Weekes added: “One of the hardest things is we continue to have to go back to May 28 and what happened to the triplets and we can’t remember the rest. We will have to keep going back because if we don’t there will be no justice for our children.”
The Telegraph attempted to contact the Qatari ambassador to Belgium to ask about his failure to attend his court case as well as representatives of the Qatari government. No one was available to comment.
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