Eleven killed in fire at airport detention centre

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The Independent Online

The fire, which started soon after midnight yesterday in the centre, which houses illegal immigrants and drug smugglers awaiting deportation, gutted the hastily erected prefab complex yards from a runway on the east side of the airport.

Fifteen people, including firemen and airport police, were seriously injured in the blaze and four are still in hospital.

Reports claimed yesterday that building materials used to construct the prison in 2002 were woefully inadequate. The Dutch Justice Minister, Piet Hein Donner, who is responsible for the detention centre, has ordered in the Safety Investigation Council.

The inquiry would examine "whether steps should be taken at other facilities so people there don't have to sit there wondering, 'Could this happen to us too'?' Mr Donner said.

A spokesman for the Dutch Institute for Fire Safety Standards also said he was "extremely unhappy" with the standard of materials used in construction of the prison.

Guards on duty at the prison - several of whom were among the 15 injured - included near-untrained staff belonging to a local security firm mainly used to police supermarkets. Some of the 350 detainees accused guards of being slow to respond to their cries for help. One claimed guards had initially ignored their warnings and their banging on cell doors. "We screamed and rang bells, we kicked at doors but nothing happened," he said.

Officials said response was slow because the cell doors could not be automatically opened and all had to be manually unlocked by guards, some of whom had been overcome by fumes.

The Dutch National Refugee Council (NRC), which has criticised conditions at the centre, said the lack of an automatic system probably added significantly to the death toll.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said: "It is terrible if you hear about a fire of such size and 11 people dead. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims and the wounded."

Rita Verdonk, the Dutch Immigration Minister and one of Europe's toughest anti-immigration legislators, said: "No blame can be pointed. Our officials did what they could under the circumstances.".

But Annerieke Dekker, a spokeswoman for the NRC, said: "We have already expressed grave concern about the condition of the buildings which were quickly erected to solve the problem of illegal immigrants and detainees at Schiphol. It was obvious that the building materials involved - there was an earlier fire - were inadequate and this was a tragedy waiting to happen.

"We still don't know how many may have been detainees and how many asylum-seekers whose entry into the Netherlands had been refused, were involved. It's a chaotic situation and little information has been made available to us."

The detainees who survived were taken to other detention centres, and helicopters searched for several who escaped from the centre during the fire. Hundreds of cocaine smugglers, mostly from the Dutch Antilles, are detained at the airport every year, along with illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.