Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Plane Crash, a Mall Fire, and 43 Reasons to Remember

What possible relevance could another anecdote about my home town have to do with my life here in Doha, you're probably asking yourself.  Stick with me, folks.  I promise to stitch it together.

On March 10, 1989, the pilots of a small Air Ontario jet prepared for their flight from the airport in Dryden, Ontario, scheduled to fly to Winnipeg.  The weather was terrible, with temperatures hovering around freezing, and wet snow was falling.  The plane had already been delayed for several reasons, weather and otherwise.  When the jet finally did take off, it was sluggish, and was unable to gain even enough altitude to clear the forest beyond the runway, shearing off the tree tops in its path.  Less than a minute after taking off, the plane crashed into the dense and remote bush of northern Ontario, 950 metres from the runway.  Of the 69 passengers and crew on board, 24 died.

The tragedy of Air Ontario 1363 was a watershed event for aviation safety in Canada.  A judicial inquiry was commissioned, and after three years (during which time two interim reports were provided to international air transport safety organizations before the final document was completed), Judge Virgil Mohansky had determined that the principle cause of the crash was ice build-up on the wings of the aircraft.  No less significant was the lack of a top-down "culture of safety" at Air Ontario.  Judge Mohansky made 192 recommendations that were adopted by airports in all relevant locations, the most important being changes to de-icing methods used on planes in cold-weather climates.

The following year, a bronze plaque displaying the names of all 24 victims was unveiled at a memorial to remember the tragedy.

So, what's my point?  There's a story in Doha playing out that reminds me a great deal of the Dryden crash.  Try to think of the two stories as those near-identical cartoon pictures you see in the funny pages; see if you can spot the differences.  I think you'll find it anything but amusing.

Last week, three and a half months after a fire at Villaggio Mall claimed the lives of 19 people, the mall was once again opened to the public.  In the time since this tragedy, much has happened as a result.  The days following the fire were filled with an outpouring of grief from the whole community.  Flowers and stuffed animals were laid at the mall's main sign.  There was news that an investigation into the cause of the fire was underway.  Fire safety inspections were taking place at other malls, leaving them closed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.  A trial date was set for those suspected in playing a part, inadvertent or otherwise, in the sequence of events that led to this unimaginable tragedy.  And finally, there were reports that Villaggio had completed physical changes to the mall to satisfy improvements to its dire safety breaches.

A fire exit bound with a wire, when
the mall opened last week

But what does any of it mean?  The memorials were taken down.  Some of the padlocked fire exits were now bound with wire zip-ties.  The trial was postponed indefinitely because two of the three accused failed to appear.  Many of the changes that have occurred are sadly just knee-jerk reactions in a system that is so badly flawed it seems impossible to overcome.

The difference between the handling of the tragedy in my home town over 20 years ago and the Villaggio fire investigation is that Qatar does not have a culture of enforcement.  Unless there is consistent and lasting enforcement of the regulations that have been put into place, some unaware person will put padlocks back on the fire exits to prevent theft from his store, another may ignore a faulty fire alarm, and someone else will opt to turn off a leaky sprinkler system instead of having it repaired.

So WE have to be vigilant.  We need to keep our eyes open for possible safety issues and if we spot them, tell someone.  Heck, let's yell at them if we have to.  If those changes are adhered to, like the changes made after the Air Ontario crash, who knows how many lives could be saved.

And something needs to be done in a permanent, tangible manner to honour the memory of those who lost their lives.  Not only would it help all of us here now to remember, every time we walk past it, but it would encourage those who come after us to continue along the path of change, one step at a time.

My boys will play hockey again at Villaggio Mall.  To say that I'm dreading it would be an understatement.  I don't want to experience what I felt in those weeks after mothers, sisters, grown sons and daughters, and small children lost their lives.  But I also don't want NOT to feel it.  I don't want to enter Villaggio and pretend it never happened.  I want to be reminded, and I want everyone who enters the mall to remember, so that something like it never happens again.

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