Atlanta toddler among 13 children killed in Qatar mall fire

Updated:

Zeinah Aouani died in a fire Monday in in Doha, Qatar. Photo obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ATLANTA - An Atlanta child was among 13 killed in side a massive fire in Qatar.

Zeinah Aouani, 2, died in the fire that broke out Monday at the Villagio mall in Doha, Qatar.

A total of 19 people were killed in the fire.

Witnesses reported thick black smoke pouring from the ritzy mall around midday. 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.

Thick smoke and heat hindered rescue efforts, as did a lack of floor plans and malfunctioning sprinkler systems, Qatar's Interior Ministry said on Twitter.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, Georgia State University economics professor Grace O got a phone call from her husband, telling her smoke was rising mall where Zeinah was enrolled in day care.

As the mall burned, O said, authorities outside told her, "'Your kid is safe inside.' That's what they say." All this time, she said, "There's black smoke coming out."

It would be four hours before 33-year-old O and her husband, Zaier Aouani, would learn of their daughter's fate. They buried Zeinah on Wednesday in Tunisia.

O and her husband had recently received their green cards and were eager to find jobs in the same city. Zeinah was excited when they told her they'd soon be together for good.

"She loves to sing. She loves dancing. She loves to read books," said Zeinah's mother, still using the present tense when speaking of her almond-eyed daughter with the big smile. "She speaks English, Korean, a few Arabic and French words already. She's really beautiful. Wherever we go to, everyone just stares at her. She's so beautiful. We do everything together. Literally everything."

They hope their daughter's death will force change upon Qatar's emergency response system, along with the oil-rich state's apparently lax safety standards.

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"I hope this will alarm the entire world," O said. "Qatar is a paradise. A lot of money. They have the capability of equipping, of not having an incompetent police system. There is no excuse for what happened."

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.

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.


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