'It was like war. They trampled over each other to get out'

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The Independent Online

From the outside, the Dutch seaside bar where at least eight youngsters died on New Year's morning looked strangely unscarred, its scorched ground floor now boarded up and covered with lengths of black tarpaulin which billowed in the icy wind. But inside, the forensic scientists picking through the wreckage uncovered a scene of horror.

From the outside, the Dutch seaside bar where at least eight youngsters died on New Year's morning looked strangely unscarred, its scorched ground floor now boarded up and covered with lengths of black tarpaulin which billowed in the icy wind. But inside, the forensic scientists picking through the wreckage uncovered a scene of horror.

Even when the bodies were removed, the bar - "Het Hemeltje" or "Little Heaven" - resembled a vision from purgatory, with fingerprints along the walls just one visible sign of the revellers' desperate struggle to feel their way to safety in the dark.

On the third floor of the building, where the conflagration began, those who could find a window smashed the glass - often injuring themselves in the process - and tried to jump to safety. "We heard from eyewitnesses that the lights fell out, that it was intensely hot with lots of smoke", said one police officer.

"We found everything in there", he added, "jackets, shoes, and other clothes but also blood, skin - even the top of fingers which had been cut off by the broken glass in the panic." The disaster has shocked the Netherlands, not only because this was a New Year party that ended in disaster but because so many young people were killed so quickly. Although eight people, thought to be seven men and one woman, were confirmed fatalities, the emergency services expected the death toll to rise to between 10 and 12 because of the severity of the njuries.

All burns units in Dutch hospitals were quickly filled with patients and many of the most seriously injured people had to be moved by helicopter across the border to be treated in Belgium and Germany.

Fifty of the injured were taken to Amsterdam's Academic Hospital.

Less than eight months after an explosion at a firework factory in Enschede, the Dutch border town, killed 20, the Netherlands begins the new year in mourning again and with more questions to ask about its safety standards.

Families of the injured arrived at the hospital throughout the morning. Some were still not sure whether the teenagers in intensive care were their own children. Too upset to talk about the disaster that New Year celebrations into a nightmare a mother, supported by friends and neighbours, cried inconsolably. A friend said: "Her daughter who is only 16 was at the disco; we searched and searched but there was no trace of her and a friend who was there also told us that they lost one another when the lights went out and everything was black with screaming and panic."

Frank van Bosch of the Amsterdam Medical Centre Hospital said that it was traumatic for staff as distraught parents were taken to identify their children from victims with acute burns.

"Eleven of the seriously injured are still in intensive care here," Mr van Bosch said last night. Earlier in the day eight were removed by helicopter to burns clinics in Belgium where they are critically ill.

Mr van Bosch added: "Our staff said it was heartbreaking to watch parents' reactions as they stood by the bedsides of their loved ones; the injuries are horrendous and it will take years for some of the victims to recover; but they are alive and where there is life there is hope."

Almost certainly, a catastrophe on this scale could have been avoided. Police say that at least one emergency exit was locked and they believe the fire was started in combustible Christmas decorations, probably ignited by a firecracker or sparkler. The ceiling of the top- floor bar, where the blaze began, had been covered by what one policemen described as inflammable decorative bunting - "cheap rubbish" as he put it. From there the blaze is thought to have engulfed the carpet as well as the clothing of some of the revellers as the flames took hold.

On New Year's Eve the three- storey building was jammed with more than 500 revellers, perhaps as many as 200 on the crowded top-floor area where the deadly fire began. The first alarm call came through to the regional Red Cross at 00.37 local time and fire engines and ambulances raced to the building in Volendam's picturesque harbour.

One of the first there was the town's Mayor, Frank Ijsselmuiden, who could only look on as one young person died beside a fire engine despite efforts by emergency workers to revive him. "I saw disorientated youngsters with fear in their eyes. I watched as one of those youngsters died," said Mr Ijsselmuiden.

One Dutch TV correspondent said that unconscious victims were pulled out of windows by their hair as clouds of smoke billowed from the building. An witness, Henk Jong, said: "It was like warfare, people screaming and trampling over each other to get out. The people I saw will be scarred for the rest of their lives. They were maimed and burned - a woman without an ear and her hair burnt off, and a boy without skin on his arms." A partygoer told a Netherlands radio station: "I was partying with my mates, and all of a sudden - boom! In one second everything vanished. You couldn't see a thing".

A convoy of ambulances ferried the wounded to hospitals. Local people volunteered to help out, and some were called on to put burns victims into bathtubs until more sophisticated treatment was available.

The effects of smoke and the stampede that ensued appear to have been the main reasons why the death toll was so high at Volendam. As Mr Ijsselmuiden said: "Probably blind panic is the reason so many people have been injured. It was crowded."

Arie Derksen, co-ordinator of disaster relief for the Netherlands' northern province, added: "There were many people in the cafe, mainly people aged 18-30 drinking and dancing, and Christmas decorations all over the place.

"There was a fire followed by a panic. People all tried to get to the exit they knew but for many there was no way out, they were blocked. People jumped from the windows, people were trapped under chairs."

Although investigators say that at least one emergency exit was open, police at the scene argue that the rear top-floor door was not supported by a platform and cannot be counted as a working emergency exit.

Jos van Kemenade, provincial governor for the north of the Netherlands, said that the clothes worn by the partygoers may have helped the fatal blaze. "The fire spread very quickly," he said. "And the type of clothes worn are very dangerous - plastic and nylon - clothes which are worn especially by young people."

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