Verdict in Volendam Fire Disaster on 18 July
Trial over Culpabililty in
Volendam Cafe Fire Tragedy Draws to a Close
Haarlem - Prior to summary arguments from prosecuting attorneys Mr. A. Peters and Mr. J. Beune at the District Court of Haarlem on 27 June, a statement was read in court from ex-Mayor J. Bulte of Monnickendam, North Holland, on behalf of parents, relatives and friends of 12 persons who lost their lives and 201 who were injured in a fire on New Year's eve 2000/01 at the Hemel, a cafe in Volendam operated by Mr. Jan Veerman.
The letter accused Veerman of being a cold and uncaring person whose efforts to renovate the burnt-out cafe and reopen it showed "little respect" for the victims. The mayor said what hurt the most was his apparent disinterest in the grief and sorrow of those whose loved ones were lost or badly injured. All efforts to get a human response from Veerman had, said the ex-mayor, failed.
In reaction, the three attorneys for Mr. Jan Veerman, his daughter Laura and the cafe manager John Veerman, who is no relative of Jan, said the emotional appeal was an attempt to distract the court from its proper task of finding culpability and introduced prejudice insofar as the mayor is taking sides in a case yet to be decided.
Mr. Peters came to court with three counts of guilt in his indictment. The New Year's party took place on the upper floor of the cafe which is located on the main street of Volendam. The first issue to be decided by the court is whether pine branches placed on a net attached to the ceiling were hanging too close to those attending the party such that the branches could catch fire from, for example, a cigarette lighter or sparkler. The second issue is whether the exit doors were functioning properly, and thirdly, whether there were too many people in the room where the party on the third floor was being held.
The investigation conducted by the prosecuting attorney has concluded that the daughter Laura Veerman, 27, was negligent for placing the net and pine branches in such a way that they could easily catch fire. She, said Peters, should be found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to three-months prison.
John and Jan Veerman, said Peters, are both guilty of negligence and manslaughter with respect to the non-functioning of emergency exit doors from the cafe and for the fact there were too many people in the cafe. John Veerman, 35, should serve ten-months imprisonment, while owner Jan Veerman, 56, should be found guilty on these counts and sentenced to sixteen-months imprisonment plus payment of a fine.
In their defense, the famous criminal lawyers from Friesland, the twins Mr. Wim and Hans Anker, argued the case should be thrown out as prejudice had been shown by the prosecuting attorney by failing to prosecute the municipality for failing to exercise duties with respect to safety inspection. His clients, however, were being prosecuted.
The attorneys argued, therefore, that if their clients must stand trial, so must the municipality. In the end, however, the case against their clients should be dropped as actually no one was guilty of negligence. The fire which raged through the cafe was caused by a "combination of circumstances" none of which could be placed at the door of any specific person.
On the other hand, the actual fire was caused by a visitor who lit a sparkler and raised it in the air close to the pine branches in the net. "A flame bursts out from the sparkler as a reaction from somebody who lifted it over his head and the flame accidentally touched Christmas decorations near the ceiling, resulting in an inferno. That was the direct cause".
Mr. J. Boskam, the third attorney for the defendants, argued that his clients could not have foreseen the Christmas decoration would catch fire from a couple of sparklers because care had been taken to make certain the net was close to the ceiling.
The daughter, in any case, is not culpable because she was simply following instructions given by her father when hanging up the decorations. The cafe manager John had nothing to do with the decorations as he was at the bar in another part of the building . He could not be held responsible for the fact too many people crowded into the cafe.
Moreover, and in answer to the complaint of heartlessness, the attorneys said Jan Veerman had altogether provided the victims some Euro 2.7 m in the form of compensation and insurance. He, obviously, could never do anything good in their eyes.
The District Court of Haarlem will render a verdict on 18 July 2003. 3 July 2003
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