Written and Photography by Elena Finariu
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines disaster as:
“a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”.
The tragedy – facts
According to this definition, what happened on New Year‘s Eve 2001 in Volendam has all the necessary elements to be labelled as a disaster. It was an extraordinary event that caused a disruption in everyday life of the community, it involved human and material loss and it required the significant mobilization of resources, both from the community and authorities.
On the 2000-01 New Year’s Eve, a fire ripped through the café Hemeltje, located on the top floor of a building in the Dutch village of Volendam, killing fourteen young people and injuring more than 200.
The café fire occurred shortly after midnight, at the moment the place was crowded, this led to a high number of severely injured burn victims; four of them died immediately, ten others died in the hospital. The tragedy seemed to be caused by a sparkler that set fire to the Christmas decorations attached to the ceiling. There were too many visitors and not enough escape routes. There are also suspicions that several other ordinances of the municipality were not fulfilled. Also, questions were asked whether the checks had been carried out sufficiently by the municipality. Following the event, as result of the inquiry, the Mayor of Edam-Volendam Frank IJsselmuiden and the alderman Wim Visscher resigned from their positions.
Before the actual trip to Volendam, I asked a few of my Dutch friends about this event, everyone told me the same thing: that Volendam is a close community where everybody knows everybody and that the fire was a great loss that deeply affected the whole village.
Volendam fire, text vs field
I did not need more; I know how it feels to think that it could have been you in that situation or any of your friends. I had in mind the fresh memory of a similar tragedy that happened in Club Colectiv in Bucharest on Oct 15, 2015, when during a concert a sparkle set fire to the sound isolation material that was on the walls. 64 people died and over 100 suffered severe burns; among the less injured was also a Dutch citizen. I did not know any victims personally, but many of my friends did. Immediately after the fire made the news I started to receive messages from people asking if I am ok, if I was at the time in the club, while at the same time I was checking if any of my friends were there. It was an atmosphere of mourning in the entire city, a two million inhabitants city. The bars stayed empty for days as a form of solidarity with the young people and the families affected by the tragedy. Massive protests followed the event, that led to the resignation of the prime minister. The tragedy in Club Colectiv became the tragedy of the entire capital, taking in consideration the small size of the village and the bound between the inhabitants of Volendam, most likely the emotional impact that the Hemeltje fire had on the community was significantly higher than the one in Bucharest.
I chose to start this field work report with the definition of the disaster not because someone might not know what a disaster is, but to highlight the difference between the theoretical part and the emotional implication, aspect that might get lost when such a tragedy is being referred to in terms of numbers and reports.
It was a cold and rainy Tuesday; I was waiting in Central Station for the bus nr. 316 towards Volendam. Suddenly I remembered the first Anthropology of disaster class and the discussion about all the caution signs around, that I never paid attention before, and while waiting I started to observe and photograph the signs around me, a few indicating the emergency exits and an S.O.S point, this could make the difference between life and death maybe, but like most people, I do not think that this will not happen to me.
After a 20 minutes ride, I arrived in Volendam, just when the bus stopped in the centre I asked a young male passenger if he is from Volendam and if this is the right stop for the harbour because I am looking for the place where the fire happened 15 years ago. I almost fell ashamed for asking that question.
I got off the bus and instinctively walked towards the harbour. I was hoping that I would recognize the building where the café used to be on my own. I did not want to interact with the Volendam citizens at all. I was afraid that they might ask me why am I asking those questions and I was afraid that talking about that tragedy in term of a school assignment might be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
I walked up and down along the shore with no success, it was raining and a cold wind was blowing. I was already wet and very cold. I decided to ask someone for directions. Despite the bad weather, the shore was full of tourists, I walked away from the tourist area in search of someone local. I entered a store in order to ask for directions. At the cash desk, there was a young girl probably my age, I told her what I am looking for and she explained to me how to get to the place where the café used to be; now Volendam Experience, she told me it is some kind of museum. My first thought was that it was something done in the memory of the victims. I went to look for the place following her directions but I failed. I looked around but I could not find the place, I had to ask for directions again, I was on the little street behind the harbour. A woman around 60 years old passed and I told her what I was looking for, she barely spoke English, but she was kind enough to walk me to the front of the building I was looking for, I took advantage of the situation and I asked her if she also knows where the monument dedicated to the victims was, the whole time I had the same feeling, like I am entering uninvited in someone else’ s house.
When finally arrived in front of the building where the café used to be I was completely surprised, I had passed it several times before and I did not expect the building to be in use.
I thought that it would have something to remember the tragedy that happened there 15 years ago, as the girl from the shop told me I was looking for “a sort of museum’’ but Volendam Experience was not what I imagined; at the entrance a girl dressed in traditional Dutch clothes was trying to get the attention of the people that passed in front of the building, it was an invitation to “experience Volendam”. I did not want to enter, from the outside it looked like a tourist shop that was selling souvenirs.
Picture 1. Volendam Experience (former café Hemeltje)
Picture 2. Monument in memory of the 2001 fire’s victims
I went down a few steps towards the sea and I found the "Water" memorial dedicated to the youngsters that lost their lives in 2001 New Year’s Eve fire that Volendam artist John van Baarsen made in 2002. Unfortunately, it is something that can barely be seen from the alley, where all the tourists are passing, the monument is located on the side, right opposite the building, facing the sea. It feels like it is almost hidden from the sight of the visitors, as something that belongs only to locals. A quiet place, located one meter under the crowded street. I dare say it was crowded but at the moment the picture above was taken it was raining and all the tourists were inside the bars and shops nearby.
Based on the information I had about the event I knew that besides the monument on the shore there was supposed to be another one, a bronze statue of a girl. The lady that helped me find the Volendam Experience gave me some indications about the location of it, but unfortunately in Dutch, so I had to ask again for help. I spoke to a young girl working in a small pancake van; the monument I was looking for was not far from there.
I walked along the shore, following the directions she gave me. I went down some steps, it was a beautiful peaceful view, on one side there was the sea and on the other the small houses of the village.
Picture 3. The road towards the graveyard (right behind the houses)
The church I was looking for was hidden and not visible from the main road. I was finally there; the church was surrounded by the graveyard. I was walking slowly down the small alley looking for the "the bronze girl". I was alone in a cemetery, it was raining and it was cold, I felt sad and unconformable at the same time. Without realizing I started to look at the names and at the age of the people which were buried there. I stopped in front of the grave of a girl, it was full of flowers, pictures of her, she died in 2014, she was 14 years old, I felt I had no strength left in my legs. I wondered what happened, I thought about the pain of her parents, I thought about her, although I had no idea who she was.
It became harder to move around that place, I continued to look for the statue, wondering where the fourteen people that lost their lives were buried. I passed by the place a couple of times but only after I went around the whole graveyard I finally saw it, it was like I was looking through everything, I tried to stay focused on my purpose but it was beyond my powers.
The monument could be easily seen from the place where I entered the cemetery, the girl was facing the graves, fourteen, I had to count them twice, they were separate from the rest of the graves in the cemetery, surrounded from three sides by a hedge, the graves were facing the sea.
Some of the victims had my age when they died. I wanted to take a picture of the graves, but I felt it was not appropriate towards the people resting there. So I just stood still, I read out loud every name and said a prayer, I felt obliged to show respect for their suffering, they were no longer just a number in an article or a report, but humans, I could associate the name to an image and each image had a story.
Picture 4. Monument facing the fourteen graves of the 2001 fire’s victims.
In that moment I could not help to think about the people that lost their lives in the Club Colectiv fire. Shortly after someone took the initiative and wrote an article that contained the photo and a few words about every person that lost his life after that incident. Maybe someone did this for the Volendam fire victims as well; unfortunately, I could not find it. I wish I knew at least a little detail of the lives of every single person there.
I left the graveyard with a whole new perception of what happened. I was angry at the fact that the building had no sign to indicate what happened there 15 years ago. I entered the shop; it was full of souvenirs illustrating Dutch traditional objects, like mini wooden shoes, dolls dressed in traditional clothes, etc. At the desk there was a man around 70 years old, he asked me if I know what the place is. I looked around and I replied almost rude that it seems to be a 7 D cinema that uses virtual reality technology. Apparently, I was right, here the tourists had the possibility to make a virtual travel back in time, to the Volendam of the year 1916.
Picture 5. Volendam Experience flyer
It was almost ironic the place offered visitors the possibility to travel back in time. While the man in the shop explained to me what they offer there I stopped listening and I imagined I travelled back in time, 15 years ago to the time of the tragedy. I felt it was unfair that the place did not keep anything to remind people what happened on the New Year’s Eve of 2000 – 2001.
During this whole time, I wondered if I should stop someone on the street invite that person to get a coffee and ask some questions about the event. Somehow I found that really inappropriate, what if it was someone who lost someone dear that night, or maybe it would just bring back painful memories. Eventually, I left the shop, but not before buying a keychain as memory, I don’t know why I did that.
My anger about the place was not justified, I discovered later that the new purpose of the building was discussed with the survivors of the tragedy, they supported the initiative as well, the entrepreneur promised that the floor where “Little Heaven’’ used to be will not be included in the experience and that it will be treated with respect.
After all the “reuse’’ of the building for a different purpose is a proof that life goes on and that the community had the strength to move on without forgetting their past. Maybe Volendam Experience is now a symbol, a sign of strength and resilience. ‘’Without past, no present’’ says a quote on the webpage of the new business.
Doing this field work was a travel back in time for myself as well, on one hand it felt like a tribute paid to the young people that lost their lives in that tragic night, a proof that they are not forgotten; it was a reminder of the similar tragedy that happened not long ago in Bucharest, but also an example of how life continues its natural course.