Madrid City Hall seeks to duck blame over Halloween deaths

Halloween tragedy to lead to new rules for policing of major events City to be more vigilant over which activities can take place in its buildings

The Socialist Party spokesman for Madrid City Council, Jaime Lissavetzky (l), at the Madrid Arena hearings
The Socialist Party spokesman for Madrid City Council, Jaime Lissavetzky (l), at the Madrid Arena hearingsL. S.

Once again, the Madrid city council is seeking to lay the blame for the deaths of five young women at a Halloween party squarely at the door of the promoter who organized it.

A City Hall investigative committee presided by the Popular Party (PP), which governs Madrid with an absolute majority, presented its conclusions on Wednesday after five days of gathering testimony from people involved in the tragic events of October 31. A massive party organized at the municipally owned Madrid Arena turned to tragedy when thousands of revelers got trapped inside a narrow passageway and a firecracker set off a stampede. The deaths of five women aged 17 to 20 were caused by the ensuing chaos.

Police investigators have since determined that the event was oversold and that hundreds more people slipped in halfway through a set by a popular DJ, adding to the congestion in the access points to the main floor.

The promoter of the party, Miguel Ángel Flores, had claimed that 9,650 people attended the event, but ticket sale records suggest that 16,791 were there. Flores had originally rented out the space for an event holding 5,000 people or less. The well-known businessman is the main defendant in the case, and is also believed to have been given favorable treatment by municipal corporations in charge of awarding licenses.

A PP spokeman did not rule out the possibility of more resignations

Although the opposition has since denounced council errors in the way the Madrid Arena facilities were maintained, ruling conservatives are denying any blame over the outcome of the party.

“There is one facility, Madrid Arena, which met every safety guarantee; the municipal company Madrid Espacios y Congresos rented it out to a private promoter, and the latter’s poor use of it ended in tragedy,” claimed PP spokesman Enrique Núñez. “All city departments and municipal companies acted within the boundaries of the law.

“Núñez also said that political accountability has been served with the resignation of Pedro Calvo, who ran Madrid Espacios y Congresos, the city corporation responsible for Madrid Arena. Calvo also faces criminal charges in connection with the tragedy, since in May of this year he commissioned an expert report on the state of these and other city facilities, which revealed several safety failures. But Calvo failed to address these shortcomings, and instead kept the facilities open. A week after the deadly Halloween party, Calvo ordered two other facilities to be closed down.

However, the PP spokesman did not rule out the possibility of new resignations or removals “depending on how the judicial investigation proceeds.” The city’s environment and safety commissioner, Antonio de Guindos, has already announced that he will resign if charges are brought against him.

The investigative committee’s work has also brought to light a lack of coordination between the emergency services (Samur) and the local police. From now on, the city will create a single operative command center to coordinate both agencies and the firefighters as well, with a view to providing adequate service during large events. Expert testimonies suggest that on the night of October 31, Samur was not alerted in time about the fact that a party with thousands of attendees was to be held, and failed to deploy the necessary medical teams.

Another committee conclusion is that from now on, the police will have to permanently watch over any event with more than 5,000 people, regardless of whether it is held in a public or private facility. The city will also be more vigilant about what kind of event may be held in municipal grounds, since Madrid Arena, for example, was meant chiefly as a space for exhibitions and sports events, not as a music venue.

If the law had been observed, the tragedy could have been avoided

Although the PP is portraying the city’s behavior as spotless, the leaders of United Left (IU) and Unión Progreso y Democracia have pointed out that if only the law had been observed, the tragedy could have been avoided — or been less deadly. IU chief Ángel Pérez demanded that Madrid Arena be closed until deficiencies detected in an earlier 2010 report are finally fixed. His party refused to be part of the investigative committee because the PP would not allow Madrid Mayor Ana Botella to be called in to testify, along with several other key figures.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party spokesman for Madrid City Council, Jaime Lissavetzky, said that the measures agreed on by the investigation into the tragedy “contradict the story” told by the Popular Party, given that they placed the blame at the door of the promoter. He added that the incident will mark a “before and an after” for Madrid City Hall.

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