Blaze at Qatar shopping centre kills 19

Journalist Victoria Scott: "It's just simply devastating, the community here is really very small"

A fire at a shopping centre in the Qatari capital Doha has killed at least 19 people, local officials have said.

The interior ministry said 13 of the victims at the Villaggio centre were children. Four of them were Spanish nationals, three from New Zealand and one child was French.

The cause of the fire - believed to have started in the centre's nursery - is being investigated.

The Villaggio is a popular shopping centre in the small Gulf state.

The centre - which opened in 2006 - has a cinema, a hotel and a Venice-styled theme park.

'Trapped inside'

Start Quote

I was in Pizza Express in the mall... with 17 children, aged three to four - we were so lucky to be near the exit”

End Quote A teacher in Doha

The blaze started at about 11:00 local time (08:00 GMT) on Monday, Qatari Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani said.

It is believed to have started at the centre's Gympanzee nursery, and firefighters reportedly had to break through the roof to get to trapped children when a staircase collapsed.

But the firefighters were too late to save seven young girls and six boys who died with four of their teachers, reports say.

Four of the children who died were Spanish, foreign ministry officials in Madrid said, without giving further details.

In Paris, the minister in charge of French expatriates, Yamina Benguigui, said that a three-year-old French child died in the blaze.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key later confirmed that three of the dead children were New Zealanders, adding that they were believed to be triplets, the New Zealand Herald newspaper reports.

Two civil defence officials - said to be firefighters - were also among the victims, the interior ministry said.

All the victims died of asphyxiation, reports say.

Analysis

As plumes of smoke began to rise from the centre, most shoppers were unaware anything was wrong. One was told to continue eating a meal; another emerged from a shop's dressing room to find all the staff had left. Meanwhile, young men posed for pictures in the VIP area, which was thick with smoke.

Gradually, an evacuation began. Some shoppers heard alarms, but others heard nothing, running as they saw smoke spreading down hallways.

Officials say some sprinklers and alarms failed to work while floor plans did not have emergency exits correctly marked.

A group of children and their teachers in the mall's nursery, Gympanzee, were unable to get out.

Officials say firefighters were initially unaware there was a nursery inside. As soon as they realised, they went in to try to save them. Two firemen died trying to rescue the children.

"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," Sheikh Abdullah told reporters.

Black smoke billowing from the centre and also a lack of floor plans are believed to have hindered the rescue operation.

Medics were treating the injured after police evacuated the complex.

"There don't seem to have been any fire alarms or sprinklers at the mall," a relative of one of the victims told Reuters.

One teacher told the BBC: "I was in Pizza Express in the mall... with 17 children, aged three to four. We were making pizzas as part of a school trip.

"The first we knew of the fire was when we saw the smoke, there were fire alarms going off in the building but they were barely audible. They were not sounding in the individual shops, they were so quiet. We were so lucky to be near the exit.

"The idea that the emergency services turned up a minute after the call about the fire was made is nonsense - they arrived after we were all safely outside and the fire was well under way," Ms Amanda said.

Reports say that the evacuation was very chaotic and there is some criticism of the way the incident was handled by the emergency services.

The fire was later extinguished.

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