Home / 11 Detainees Burned at Schiphol Airport

11 Detainees Burned at Schiphol Airport

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Parents bring their kids to spot planes at the edge of Amsterdam’s huge Schiphol Airport. The children enjoy being there too: There is a McDonald’s restaurant with a small playground as an extra attraction. It features a large model airplane into which boys and girls can crawl; once inside, they scream with excitement. Their voices are damped by the structure, so their parents can sit around the restaurant’s tables, eating and drinking in apparent peace and quiet.

Every now and then, the peace is interrupted by a flare on the airport runway – it emits a big bang that scares away birds. Schiphol’s government-owned airport authority doesn’t want birds there, as the seagulls fly into the engines of landing aircraft. (I imagine them coming out, as in cartoons, scorched on the other end of the jets.) But beyond the occasional flame behind arriving and departing planes or whiffs of smoke that appear planes’ tires at touchdown, fire is unheard of at the site.

My 6-year old grandson Christian loves the place. I suspect he enjoys the McDonald’s meals and the playtime more than airport sights or the actual air traffic. Still, he now recognizes some of the planes, the hangars, the control tower, the terminals. I never told him that the low-laying construction out there is the airport’s detention center. Even if I had known the true purpose of the facility, I would have avoided speaking about it. Christian is too young to differentiate between “detain” and “arrest,” between a “criminal” and an “offender.” Whatever you call them, they are all behind bars.

This detention center is one of many in the Netherlands. Here, the Ministry of Justice primarily holds aliens who, after disembarking from aircraft landing at Schiphol, try to enter this rich country without visa or papers. Instead of placing them on return flights to their home countries, they are detained. Reportedly, the center also holds some detainees who smuggle plastic-wrapped dope they have swallowed.

In this quiet corner of Schiphol, five or six minutes into Oct. 27, 11 out of some 300 unsuspecting detainees were burned alive. Fifteen others were injured. The scorched might have been people like me, grandfathers who wanted to bring a Christmas toy to their grandchildren in some faraway village. We may never know: The detainees’ bodies, according to the Dutch government, were charred beyond recognition. The state tried its best to hush up this tragedy.

In my view, this was a textbook coverup. Rita Verdonk, a minister responsible for immigration, tried to persuade the parliament that all necessary measures were taken to combat the fire. Simple common sense and basic logic defy this. Thus, the gruesome deaths of the 11 detainees under the lights of Europe’s fourth-largest airport remain a mystery – and Rita Verdonk remains a minister.

Here are some facts: Detainees are locked two in a windowless cell. Logic guides me to conclude that the cement-and-iron cubicle is furnished with two iron beds, each with some sort of thin mattress, a blanket and, hopefully, a pillow. Excluding their own bodies and clothes, the detainees have nothing else to burn. Furthermore, the things which might ignite could cause only a fire that can be extinguished by stomping or urinating over it.

And note: This was not the first fire at the Schiphol detention center. A blaze broke out shortly after its opening in 2003; a second fire erupted the next year.

So, the question the ministers must answer is simple: What burned so hard as to produce a fire in which 11 hopeless people were scorched beyond recognition, an inferno which the fire brigade could not extinguish, and why were no lessons learned from previous fires there? The horrible deaths of those people is a burning question indeed. This is a tragedy and a huge emotional, moral and legal issue. How will Dutch society tackle it?

Apparently, by ignoring the matter. The Dutch, it seems, have forgotten all about the tragedy. The parliament was told that the fire was treated “accordingly” and MPs accepted that bogus excuse instead of voting no-confidence against Rita Verdonk or the government. Will the world community stand and tell the Dutch state, “We cannot allow you to let our citizens burn to death while in your custody”? Other countries will be wrong if they do nothing.

The Dutch government must not be allowed to get away with this coverup. If a parent spanks his kid, police will spring into action, break down the doors of a private home, take the minor away to safety and send the parent to the magistrate. In the Schiphol case, the fire brigade implied it could not approach the detention center’s burning wing because of a fence – not a wall, but a fence of made of chickenwire. This may mean that the firefighters watched the flames from yards away, that they may have heard the forsaken cries of those burning alive. What stopped them from tearing down the fence?

Human-rights organization Amnesty International has questions as well:

Amnesty International is concerned about allegations that earlier recommendations by fire prevention officials may not have been carried out, such as the failure to provide sufficient training to personnel. Reports suggest that this may have resulted in a delayed response on behalf of the personnel to cries for help from detainees. Efforts to rescue the persons trapped in the cells were hampered by the fact that their doors could not be opened centrally, but had to be opened one at a time by prison guards. Additionally, the alleged lack of fireproof doors in the centre allowed the fire to spread more quickly.

It is obvious that some ministers, those offering condolences instead of resignations, must be fired. Whatever it was that burned for so long should not have been there. All those in the chain of comand for this must be brought to justice. The security unit’s top boss should lose his job. Surely the administration had records containing the names of the individuals in custody, but it dared to issue a statement that the identities of these people were not known. They did not know how many were in custody three hours after the fire was put out because some ran away and were chased by helicopters while those 11 were burning alive! Can you imagine human beings being treated in such a medieval and cruel way in a civilized country in the 21st century?

The number of those missing or burned beyond recognition is irrelevant. Even one would be a tragedy and an outrage. What we need to know is how the fire occurred, exactly what burned for so long with such ferocity, and why firefighters did not break into the detention compound.

The report by the commanding officer of the fire brigade must be made public, no matter whom it finds responsible. Ben Ale, who heads NIBRA, the Dutch fire-protection institute, stated that either the flames raged for a full two hours before the firefighters arrived or the cells violated safety rules. Police washed away graffiti blaming Rita Verdonk. It is exactly that sort of attitude which alienates citizens from their government and eventually leads to irreconcilable, explosive positions.

Now, of course, incidents that explode into tragedies happen everywhere. But this tragedy happened under unexplained circumstances. Every single possible trick was used to minimize the awful impact the full truth might have had on the public. There is absolutely no justification for withholding any information for any reason. Feeble excuses are lies or semi-truths that demonstrate the government’s disrespect for truth. The notorious arrogance of the Dutch establishment in general is well known. Situations like the Schiphol fire, where it is blatantly clear that the government is responsible for a huge public mess, eventually will trigger an international backlash against Dutch attitudes.

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  • Romanian journalist

    One of the 11 dead people in that fire was Gheorghe Sas, a 21 years old Romanian boy from the village Sieu, district of Maramures, north of Romania. His parents have no peace becouse they are not sure that who burried in the village cemetery is really their son. He comitted no crime, but wanting to earn money for his wedding. God rest him in peace!

  • This is a very interesting point, well sung, Bird of Paradise;

    The very first day the media and the lawyers of some detainees said that the scorched (behind recognition) were Chinese, Indians or Africans. This was to calm down the local and the European public: none of our folk. It also implied “hey, there are so many Chinese, and these Hindus who have cows and monkeys as holy creatures, non-christians from across the globe, what did they want here?”

    Thus, the pile of bodies was presented as if charred remains of nameless and faceless aliens. But the authorities HAD TO KNOW and I think KNEW the names and the faces of all the detainees in every single cell. The ministers (Donner, Justice and Verdonk, Immigration) had to state the names of the missing at 6:00 a.m. three hours after the fire was extinguished or died out by itself. They did have a roll-call by then, did they not? But ney: there were no names for days. That was one more argument for my concern that a conspiracy or cover-up may be in progress.

    The nationalities of the victims were disclosed (no US citizens) by the time when friends of the victims have organized church masses in Amsterdam. They were packed with people demanding answers. There was a young Dutch woman holding a photo of her burned-alive boy-friend who tried to visit her. The scorched detainees were no Chinese. They were Turkish, Bulgarian, Estonian… That made me write (in my blog courtesy of the influential daily newspaper Volkskrant) that the Bulgarian passport-holder could have easily been a Macedonian (my relative, a friend, an acquaintance) who grabbed that citizenship so as to travel visa-free around Europe. He (or she, genders were not stated) might have arrived here trying to contact me and was dead because he/she failed. Codolezza Rice need not spring in action after 11 US citizen are burned alive in a detention center located on the grounds of the fourth largest European airport. That would be a trifle late.

    The State Department (on the pretext of inquiring whether there were US citizens among those burned or wounded) needed to affirm a position that no US citizens may be kept captive anywhere in the world where their lives will be in such a danger. That is a kind of obligation for the superpower which tries to enforce law and order around the globe. Send a wider message. Reassure and encourage people in American values, reaffirm that lying to the public is a crime.

    There were no reports that any of the foreign embassies demanded further explanations.

  • I suppose that just telling the world the truth is too difficult a concept for some people. The lack of trust is so great that even when good people DO tell the truth it is almost impossible to believe them.

    I wonder if any of those who died were American citizens? Not that it matters from a human standpoint, but surely the US Embassy in Brussels should be demanding details on who died and who was injured?

  • MCH

    Nope, not kidding. A proud comment by RJ on Blogcritics.

  • you are kidding, right? Nobody ever said that about Sen. Cleland, did they?

  • MCH

    Re comment #1;

    Wow, that’s hilarious. Almost as funny as the time you compared Max Cleland to a “gigantic thalidamide baby.”

  • RJ

    “Then I apologize, Mr. Elliott; if satire indeed was your intent, it was not clear.”

    No need to apologize, but thanks anyway. I was indeed rather unclear in my post… :-/

  • Natalie Davis

    You’re correct, Mr. Popov, I should not be surprised in any way. Still, witnessing the blatant disregard for the lives of others hits me like a sledgehammer in the solar plexus. Makes me sad to be sharing oxygen with them. I don’t see why they consider it so wrong to demand answers. The Dutch state has authority over the detention center; as such, it has a duty to provide answers. Otherwise, it devalues the lives lost, which I consider a grievous sin and a great moral failing. If the government is guilt-free, why gloss over the truth? Why not investigate thoroughly and provide the results, whomever evidence shows to be at fault?

  • You, dear Natalie, do not have to be surprised by the outrage above your comment.
    I do not why did you extend excuses to the original and totally irreparable blunder by RJ.
    Now, you see, he is not alone.
    There are others who do not want to hear the cries of dying men while blabber on this page asserting themselves more as bullies than rogue Robin Hoods of anarchism.

  • Wow.

  • Dave Nalle

    Frankly I don’t want to hear their tortured cries. I’d like them not to ever get in that situation in the first place. It’s not their fault that they burn to death, but it IS their fault that they are there and not somewhere that they might be welcomed.


  • Well, with all (due?) respect, Dave, your summary needs this comment.

    All, or most of the aircraft arriving on Schiphol from non-EU, third-world countries taxi to a so called “finger”. Before disembarking passengers step in onto the floor of the building two officers (marechause) check their passports. Passengers without a valid entry visa are either send back to the aircraft and return to wherever they came from or escorted to the detention center. The airline is dully and heavily fined for flying in people without entry visa.

    Detaining such a person is a delicate business. The poor soul did not do (in my view) anything wrong but in person applied a permit to enter. If the same aircraft stays overnight the person goes to the detention center to leave on the same aircraft the following day. Till here your summary is wrong.

    Now, there those who have another visa (say for the United States) and claim that they have a connecting flight. These (connecting-flight passengers) individuals are allowed to pass by the two immigration officers. Once in the building they may lose their passports and call a lawyer to help them with the new situation. With or without the lawyer they cannot leave the building and are dully accommodated in the detention center. There they may wait for a court decision on their request to enter or to be allowed to return. Since they have no documents the authorities (my assumption) established a practice to wait as long as it takes (months) to get formal acknowledgment paper from a foreign authority (the Embassy of China, for example) whether Chun-Chang Yao is really one of their 1,2 billion citizens.

    All the many problems and aspects of immigration (illegal and legal as well) are not a mystery for me. What baffles me is your suggestion that the people who find themselves in the windowless cells of a Dutch detention center need to be aware that it will be their fault if they burn to death there. It suffices that if you were willing to imagine the horrible situation there, if you wanted to try hear the tormented cries for help or mercy – you would have never written the second part of the summary. Nobody may blame the scorched ones. I honestly believe that such a predisposition is the minimum any reviewer needs to have in ample supply.

  • So, let me summarize.

    The problem here is that the facilities for detainees as Schilpol are not safe because they really weren’t designed to handle detainees in the first place and especially in the numbers that they now have to handle. This is the fault of the government because they haven’t found a better way to deal with the detainess, correct?

    Or is it perhaps to some degree the fault of the detainees, who are mostly illegally attempting to enter the country and should not be there in the first place? Admittedly, choosing to enter a country illegally shouldn’t lead to their deaths, but their choice to do so includes a basic assumption of risk which doesn’t really let you shift all the blame to the government’s lack of preparedness to deal with a problem they shouldn’t have to deal with in the first place.


  • Then I apologize, Mr. Elliott; if satire indeed was your intent, it was not clear.

  • RJ

    “Disgusting, even for you.”

    Hmm. I was actually mocking the incompetent Dutch officials by quoting those song lyrics…

  • Silas Kain

    All I want is that people think about the brazen manipulation of fact by the authorities…

    I’m the last person you should be talking to about authorities and their manipulation of facts. My level of distrust for government officials is higher than the norm. Perhaps you should go back to my original comment. I was just asking a couple of simple questions based on my limited knowledge of the disaster. I certainly am not relieving the authorities of their responsibilities. If that’s how you read my comment, you are grossly mistaken.

  • Author again

    We have all read the news over the wires. Pity only some of us reflect on the content they bring. What you read was meant for your profile of news-consumers. There was a hypothetical implication that a detainee had smuggled a cigarette-lighter in the cell and put the blanket on fire while his mate watched peacefully the preparation of a stack in which he will also die two hours latter.

    Is that what you read?

    Do you know that yesterday (a month after the fire) the state commission REFUSED to reopen the detention center because the cells do not conform to safety standards. All I want is that people think about the brazen manipulation of fact by the authorities
    The last thing I want is a confrontation. But I will use every possible argument to expose the leniency towards arrogant public servants irrelevant whether it comes from people with big tents or lazy brains. Please do not burden this page with more of your personal problems. This is all about 11 detainees burning for hours in windowless cells while the firemen could not help them. Schiphol, on the other hand has some 20 fire engines capable of extinguishing the fire on a descending jumbo-jet within minutes after touch-down at 300 km/h. Think man, think!

  • It’s not a notion. I based my question on news I read over the wires. As far as I am concerned I’m bringing up a valid point. Do we know what started the fire? You fail to even address the issue instead going off on a litany of how ridiculous the notion is. I have to ask if your comment was more about your disdain and intolerance toward me rather than about those 11 charred corpses.

  • Listen, your notion (of a detainee being an arsonist when locked in a windowless cell) defies all logic. It is a lame fable that one detainee ignited a pillow with a cigarette-lighter to produce a fire fierce enough to scorch himself and his cell-mate beyond recognition. What is this: a Dutch suicide yoke or a civilized detention center? Your big tent would not burn as fast and long as the cement and the iron-bars of those cells. Your position about this fire indicates that you might confuse an iglo with a tent. It must be very, very cold in that big tent of yours. Read or burn the latest news from the Vatican.

  • Hold on a second. Have they determined that the fire was directly due to negligence on the part of the government? My understanding was that the fire was considered arson and mayhave been started by some detainees. If that’s the case, then it seems to me some detainees need to be prosecuted.

  • Disgusting, even for you. This is not a joking matter. People died. Their deaths were horrible and the government officials responsible won’t provide a reasonable explanation. This is a human outrage — don’t you get that?

  • RJ

    The roof…
    The roof…
    The roof is on fire!

    We don’t need no water
    Let the motherfucker burn…

    Burn, motherfucker, burn…