Close-knit town where everyone had a relative or friend in the disco-cafe

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The Independent Online

Aaltje Zwaarthoed carried injured and disoriented youngsters into her home and set up a makeshift first-aid clinic in her cellar a few doors from the scene of the tragedy.

Aaltje Zwaarthoed carried injured and disoriented youngsters into her home and set up a makeshift first-aid clinic in her cellar a few doors from the scene of the tragedy.

As the new year was being celebrated across the country the elderly Dutch woman was filling a bath with water in which up to a dozen victims were put while they waited for ambulances.

Like almost everyone in Volendam, Aaltje has relatives among the dead and injured. "There is hardly a person here who didn't have a relative, a friend or a family contact in that disco-café," said her niece, Rina. "One of my nephews was dragged unconscious out of the café; we heard afterwards that the two friends beside him on the ground had died," she said.

New Year's Day in the pretty fishing town of Volendam, about 15 miles north of Amsterdam, was silent yesterday except for the grim tolling of the bells at the parish church of St Vincentius.

One of the Netherlands' most visited tourist spots, with its clusters of brightly painted wooden houses occupied by hardy generations of fishermen, who formerly fished the former Zuiderzee (now the inland Ijsselmeer lake), it epitomises Dutch enterprise. With the depletion of traditional fish stocks decades ago inhabitants cultivated their traditional customs and costumes instead and became a day-trip for millions of tourists who annually visit Amsterdam.

Yesterday, as those who live in Volendam awoke to the horror of death and injury after a night of celebration, tourists from abroad arrived as usual, anxious to stroll along the high dyke that protects the town from invasion by the Ijsselmeer.

A party of tourists from Japan, Italy and other countries spending a New Year weekend in Amsterdam were to be seen walking along the dyke path led by a guide waving the Dutch flag. As they attempted to enter the Zuideind street leading to Café Hemeltije- where the blaze had ripped through a packed New Year's Eve celebration a few hours earlier - a police officer halted the group. Clearly irritated, one of the tourists was interviewed by a Dutch radio reporter. Told that people had died, she reportedly said: "That's their problem."

She added: "We like this place; we wanted to dress up in Dutch costumes and have our photograph taken here. We were really looking forward to that."

Volendam is the only Catholic village along a coastline of staunchly reformed Protestant towns and villages around the Ijsselmeer. Volendam is regarded by its Calvinistic neighbours as being too broad-minded and materialistic, making a business out of wearing traditional costumes and encouraging tourists to take pictures. It remains, after the tourists have departed, a tightly knit community.

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