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'We just want closure': Family of Irish baby burned in Qatar house fire

Elizabeth Soffe was badly burned in the fire.
May 20th 2017, 9:30 PM 44,112 9

IT WAS JUST an ordinary day for the Irish Soffe family in Qatar on 29 May 2014, when an incident involving an air conditioning unit turned it into a nightmare.

The unit in six-month-old baby Elizabeth’s room went on fire, severely burning her in the process. She lost half of her fingers on both hands, and her left thumb, as well as having extensive burns over her body. She will have to have lifelong treatment due to her injuries.

Now, almost three years on, the Dublin family says it’s still fighting for closure – and compensation.

17305320900_7f57b62d7e_o The room after the fire. Source: Liam Soffe

The family had been Qatar for over three years and two of their children, William and Elizabeth, were born there. Liam Soffe, who is a civil engineer, had moved to Qatar because of the huge amount of construction work taking place in advance of the 2022 World Cup.

“There is a big Irish community there, there is an Irish society there who helped us a lot after the fire. So we really built our life there,” he said.

Liam told TheJournal.ie this week that he and his wife Sinead are currently involved in a civil court case with Al Asmakh Real Estate, which rented them the house where the incident occurred.

He said that the family are also seeking a full investigation into what occurred on the day of the blaze, and are seeking the Irish government’s help with this. The police investigation in Qatar has concluded but the family say they want an another investigation to take place.

They have written to the Taoiseach, and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan on the issue.

Liam Soffe described what happened on the day of the fire:

[Elizabeth] was in her cot – she was six months old. She was in her cot for 30 seconds before Sinead heard her crying, she never cried so she went up straight away. There was smoke coming out of the room, the cot was on fire, Elizabeth was on fire, the rest of the room was on fire. So Sinead got her out… and our son William who was two years old, got him out as well.

The Soffe family are now living in Birmingham, the city where Elizabeth was brought to for specialist treatment five days after the fire in 2014. The family – including Elizabeth’s siblings Amelia, William and Daniel – have settled there as Elizabeth will need to remain in the city permanently.

We arrived in the UK as refugees almost, everything we had was destroyed in a fire. The family was separated, Elizabeth was in a coma. But we’ve built a life for ourselves here that’s built around her needs. We have settled here permanently.

“When she arrived she was in a coma in the ICU,” said Liam. “The reason the hospital [in Birmingham] was so important was because it had a paediatric ICU but also a paediatric burns centre. It was really hard to find a hospital with both. They have a great team of plastic surgeons.”

Elizabeth was in the ICU, then the burns centre for a few months, and then was able to come home. But her treatment will be life-long. “She goes in every couple of weeks for appointments. And then every few months she has skin graft, skin release, hand reconstruction,” said her father.

Later in life, she will most likely have facial reconstruction on her nose, and a prosthetic ear fitted. “She is very badly scarred obviously,” said Liam. “She has had skin grafted.”

She had burns on her head, face, chest, both her arms, everywhere except her back, said Liam. Skin from her back has been used for skin grafts. However, grafted skin doesn’t grow at the rate of ‘normal’ skin and so skin release treatments are needed.

“She’ll be under the care of the hospital for her whole life and she’ll move to the adult hospital,” said Liam.

IMG-20140307-WA0001 Liam Soffe with Elizabeth and her older sister Amelia, before the fire. Source: Liam Soffe

‘She shows amazing resilience’

It’s a lot of treatment for a young girl, but Liam describes his daughter as “amazing – she is the most determined person you would ever meet”.

“She goes for the eight-hour operations and then she wakes up and within half an hour she’s looking to run around the hospital,” he said. “She shows amazing resilience every day and puts the rest of us to shame. She’s a very happy little girl.”

While Elizabeth “doesn’t know any different” as she was so young when she was burned, her family worry for her as she gets older.

“At the moment she’s three-and-a-half and all she wants is eyebrows and fingernails,” said her dad. “She’ll, I suppose, grow up and want other things and I can’t imagine… At the moment if she’s upset she is a baby so it’s easy to deal with it.”

He fears about the impact of the severe injuries on her, and on how others might see her. “I just want her to have the same opportunities as others,” said Liam.

The most upsetting part I suppose is she is not and never will be the girl that she was supposed to be. Her whole life will be about this – she will never be able to walk into a room and not have people stare at her.

“She is very badly scarred, disfigured, and that will always be the case. There is no medical procedure she can go through to fix that.”

But overall, what he really wants is closure on a case which has dominated the family’s life since 2014.

“What we want is closure – we want a proper investigation, whatever the outcome,” he said.

Not a day has gone by since the fire that we haven’t had to ring somebody or write a letter to somebody or write an email to try and deal with the issues. We want to leave it behind us and deal with the battle in front of us and not every day look back and deal with issues in Qatar. We want to move on and move on with our lives.

IMG-20130701-00033 The house where the family lived. Source: Liam Soffe

The family have also contacted the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to get involved in the issue, because they want the incident investigated again.

Additionally, they decided to take civil proceedings against Al Asmakh in January of this year. “The civil thing is separate – it is to secure her future,” explained Liam.

The Department of Foreign affairs said that department consular officials in Dublin and at the accredited embassy in Abu Dhabi are aware of the case and have been engaged in providing assistance. The department said that as per its policy, it would not be going into detail on the specifics of any individual case.

The family are seeking compensation for what occurred in order to pay for Elizabeth’s treatment as the years go on. They raised money through an online fundraiser in 2014, but are not currently seeking donations.

“Some day somebody will invent some medical procedure to improve the movement in her hand or something, but we need to be able to pay for that when it’s invented,” said her dad.

“She’ll need an adapted car, an adapted bike. She needs physiotherapy five times a day and scar management five times a day. We do that at the moment because there is no other option. She needs a physiotherapist. The NHS is great, it saved her life, she had lots of operations, fantastic plastic surgery. But for this long-term daily physio it is not very good. That is why we have to go to such lengths.”

Liam said that the police report said the air con unit in the bedroom Elizabeth was in “wasn’t wired correctly so it heated up and went on fire”.

“We had had a lot of electrical issues in the house with electrical units – not that particular one,” he said, adding that maintenance staff had worked on the other units.

He said that Al Asmakh “said and have continued to say that they are willing to assist us financially but it’s actually delivering on that promise has been that problem that we’ve struggled with for three years”.

The family provided the real estate agent with an estimate of what life treatment for their daughter would cost. “And we still haven’t claimed any money from them,” said Liam.

There have been five hearings and at every one Al Asmakh has said they need more time, said Liam.

Recently, Doha News spoke to Al Asmakh, whose spokesperson told them in a statement that the company has written evidence proving that it warned the Soffe family not to use their air-conditioning units before the fire.

This is denied by Liam Soffe.

“In Qatar in May it’s 50 degrees. So if your air con units don’t work you have to move out.
Nobody ever told us they were unsafe, ever,” said Liam.

IMG-20140318-WA0001 Elizabeth before the fire. Source: Liam Soffe

Liam was interviewed by police after the incident, although he wasn’t there on the day.

“They said that in my statement I said I believed it was an act of God and that meant they didn’t need to prosecute anyone,” said Liam. “My statement was in Arabic and I had a translator provided by company I worked with. I gave my statement, he translated it. There was no suggestion that an act of God was ever in there but it is in there in a statement. Even if it was something you would say, is that really how they are going to determine what they do?”

He said that the family want the DFA involved “to try and explain to the Qatari authorities that there needed to be a proper investigation so we can establish what actually happened”.

Liam said he would like the Department of Foreign Affairs to talk to the Qatari ambassador in London about the issue, and ask the questions they want answered about the fire.

“Elizabeth is going to grow up and ask what happened and we want to be able to answer her questions,” said her father. “We don’t want to just say we wrote them letters and we never found out.”

He said that strangers have already made comments about the three-year-old in public, and that he fears that as she gets older “people are going to stare at her and make comments”.

The family’s next court date is 12 June, where they will again be represented pro bono by a firm of solicitors.

Al Asmakh Real Estate has been contacted for a comment but had not replied at the time of publication.

Read: Six-month-old Irish baby suffers “terrible injuries” in Qatar bedroom fire>

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Aoife Barry

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