Wednesday 13 December 2017

Owner of fatal blaze apartment that killed two Irish students branded 'slum landlord' in court

Firefighters at the scene of the deadly Leuven blaze
Firefighters at the scene of the deadly Leuven blaze

Paul Gebruers

A Belgian court has heard how two Irish students died in a bathroom of their rented student accommodation as it caught fire.

Dace Zarina (22) and Sara Gibadlo (19) died when a blaze broke out at an apartment block in the city of Leuven on January 31, 2014. The owner of the flat, Malachy Vallely, also a director of the Irish College in Leuven, was described in court as a "slum landlord".

The students shared a room on the top floor of the building in the town centre.

Louise McCormack, an Irish student sleeping in an adjacent room, alerted the two women when the blaze started in the early hours.

She ran back to her room and escaped through her window onto the roof.

The remains of Ms Zarina and Ms Gibadlo were found in the bathroom. Their bedroom window was too high for them to escape through. Eight other students escaped.

22-year-old Dace Zarina from Co Longford
22-year-old Dace Zarina from Co Longford

A Belgian court has been asked to impose a one-year jail sentence on Vallely.

Ms Zarina, from Longford, and Ms Gibadlo, from Galway, were students at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and were doing a work placement at the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe.

At a court hearing in Belgium yesterday, Mr Vallely and an Irish student Shane Bracken (22) were named as defendants.

The prosecutor said Mr Vallely was a "slum landlord" who used his apartment to earn money for 23 years by renting it back to the institute.

Sara Gibadlo from Co Galway
Sara Gibadlo from Co Galway

The prosecutor said fire safety measures were "completely lacking".

The prosecutor said Mr Vallely "should have been an ambassador for his country" but instead acted as an anti-social "slum landlord". Gert Warson, lawyer for the family of Sara Gibadlo, said responsibility for the tragedy lay with the college, and Mr Vallely.

Lawyers for both Mr Vallely, and the college, strongly denied either party should be blamed for the deaths of the two young people.

The two lawyers suggested the two students may have died because they were unable to respond to the alarm raised by another student because they had consumed alcohol.

Accused landlord Malachy Vallely. Credit: RTE
Accused landlord Malachy Vallely. Credit: RTE

Mr Vallely's lawyer said all students renting Mr Vallely's apartment would have registered with the local council which would have resulted in 200 visits by police over the years and none of those visits revealed any shortcomings in fire regulations.

The court was told there was no smoke alarm in the bedroom in which the two students died, nor was there a smoke alarm in the room of another student whose cigarette, it was claimed, must have started the fire.

There were two fire extinguishers but one was empty and the other was 10 years old.

The lawyers accused both Mr Vallely and the Irish college of neglect. Mr Warson said the staircase should have withstood a fire for 30 minutes but it collapsed in 15 minutes. As a result the two victims could not escape.

Lawyers for both Mr Vallely and the Irish College denied Mr Vallely was a slum landlord.

Accused student Shane Bracken. Credit: RTE
Accused student Shane Bracken. Credit: RTE

Mr Bracken, who was charged with involuntary death due to a lack of due caution, said he had gone to bed after a night out.

He told police he had smoked in his room, but couldn't recall if he smoked on the night. Lawyers for the Gibadlo family said there was no other explanation as to what started the blaze other than Mr Bracken's cigarette.

The court adjourned until September 5 for a verdict.

Irish Independent

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