It’s been seven months since Martin and Jane Weekes would begin their day with a routine fight. It was the same squabble every day and one that never ceased to bring a smile to Martin’s face. His two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher would be wrestling over who was going to help their dad make his morning coffee.
“They would all want to help me by pushing buttons on the coffee machine again and again,” smiles Martin through tears at the North Shore home in Auckland where he and his wife Jane have been living during the holidays.
As the couple continues their slow grieving process following the horrifying fire at a daycare centre in a Doha shopping mall which killed their three children last year, they are now facing the distress of a court case into the fire. So far, the case has exposed that the mall in the capital city of Gulf state Qatar was a death trap waiting to happen.
According to evidence given by Qatar’s Civil Defence (fire service), flammable paint was used in the mall and the sprinkler system wasn’t working properly. They also gave evidence that the mall owners had been fined about the paint and warned three times in the previous week to fix the sprinklers.
“We want people to know that in our view, this was not an accident, it was systemic negligence that killed our children,” Martin claims.
“It wasn't just the mall, it was also the daycare owners, the emergency services, the people who designed the building and the authorities who inspected the building that failed – all of them are responsible for our children's death.
“The court was told the second of the two emergency exits in the daycare was locked shut from the outside by the mall. The children were trapped in there to die as the other unlocked exit led up to the fire.”
The parents of the 13 children killed in the daycare centre last May called for a boycott of the Villaggio mall until they were satisfied it was safe. The mall was shut for three months to improve safety, but Martin says the owners haven’t outlined what, if any, measures have been put in place.
The court hearing has been excruciating for the parents of the children killed, says Martin, as they are having to continually relive that tragic day.
“The more that comes out, the more appalled I am, and the more determined I am on behalf of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher and their 10 little friends killed in there. I am not going to remain silent until people are held accountable,” vows Martin, whose three older children Natalya (16), Tatjana (15) and Nikolai (13) live in New Zealand.
The triplets were born in Wellington hospital 10 weeks prematurely on March 11 2010, all just one minute apart. The much-loved children were conceived through IVF in Qatar, where Martin had been working as a senior media advisor since 2007, and were doted on from the moment they were born.
After Jane (38) discovered she had ovarian cysts, it took just one cycle of IVF in Qatar for the triplets to be conceived three years ago. She was given the option to have three fertilised eggs implanted – a procedure that would be unusual in New Zealand.
“I wanted them to put in two and freeze one but they wouldn’t let us freeze one,“ Jane explains. “I had to make a decision on my own because husbands weren’t allowed in that part of the hospital. And they said it was unlikely all three would take.”
When Jane was told she was pregnant with triplets, she was instantly afraid. “I was scared. I cried. You immediately start worrying if you can carry them long enough. But when they were born at 30 weeks [by Caesarean] I knew they would be okay,” she says.
“After everything those kids went through to get into the world, what happened to them just doesn’t make sense,” adds Martin.
Feathers have become a symbol of their lost children for the Kiwi couple. Shortly after their deaths, Jane wanted to know if their three spirits were still around. When she stepped out of the house, a small feather landed on her hand.
Martin (46) has also seen feathers at low points in his grief, which has given him strength, and they’ve also taken comfort from unusual messages they have received from strangers.
“People have contacted us with messages which they say have come from the children. They will give us what seems like the most irrelevant detail which is the most personal to the children and us, and that has happened a couple of times,” he says.
“You really want to know there’s more to life. I hope one day that I get to sit down with Lillie, Jackson and Willsher again somehow. “But what has been difficult is when people try and rationalise what’s happened as being some ‘act of God’, because it wasn't. We believe it was gross negligence by mankind – individuals and regulatory bodies. It wasn’t an unavoidable accident.”
Apart from the emotional cost, the Weekeses have incurred huge financial expenses from the tragedy. Bringing the triplets back to New Zealand, flights, the funeral and medical bills have all hit them hard.
In their grief, they have been determined to have more children and they have been undergoing IVF in the US. Now they’re trying for more children, Jane admits she has mixed feelings about going through another pregnancy.
“It’s a really tough balance wishing for another baby when in a lot of ways you’re wishing for the children that you had. But I can’t not be a mother.”
Gone too soon
Jane had her heart set on having a girl named Lillie, but her daughter was nicknamed Peanut because she was much smaller than her brothers. Ironically, when she was one, it was discovered that Lillie was allergic to peanuts. She was so petite, people asked if she was the youngest child. With her two brothers, she was enrolled at the Gympanzee nursery at the Doha mall part time, to get out the 50ºC heat of summer. Lillie loved Tinker Bell and following her mother around, but when she got to nursery she was the first to run off and play.
Jackson was particularly clever but could also be mischievous and he looked just like Martin as a baby. He was extremely polite and loved to clean, but also enjoyed drawing on the walls. “He liked to draw on the walls no matter how much you told him not to,” says Martin. “But if he was asked, ‘Jackson, who drew on the walls?’ it was always, ‘Winkie [Willsher] did it’.” After he died and Jane and Martin moved out of their house, the maintenance man couldn’t seem to cover the drawings. No matter how many coats of paint he used, they remained there.
The youngest but the biggest triplet, Willsher inherited Martin’s family name and was nicknamed Winkie. He was good-natured and would take the blame for his siblings’ mischief. “He could take the pressure,” Martin smiles. “He was usually on the butt-end of anything his brother and sister got up to.” He would announce, “Winkie did it,” if anyone was in trouble. He became so used to having things taken off him by his brother and sister that if he wanted to keep something he would pick it up and run as fast as he could – usually with Jackson in pursuit.
A donation has been made to The Neonatal Trust (New Zealand) by New Zealand Woman’s Weekly at the Weekeses request. You can follow the family’s progress at https://facebook.com/LillieJacksonWillsherMemorial