Written and Photography by Simone Tijdink
The Volendam Café Fire was a disaster that caught the eye of the entire country and beyond. What was supposed to be the perfect New Year’s Eve for hundreds of adolescents, crowded up in the upstairs bar to wish all their friends a happy 2001, was to become the horrific night that changed their lives and marked their village for good. Nearly 14 years after the fire had taken place, I decided to visit the fishers' town for an ethnographic account of the disaster, and therefore I chased its traces, in order to catch a glimpse of the physical, emotional and social impact of that New Year’s Eve in Volendam.
Before going, I had only done some newspaper and scientific literature research on the disaster, which consisted of the factual event telling, medical emergency management and a psychological study on substance abuse during the aftermath. What opened my eyes to everything that I had seen during my visit, however, did not come until after I had visited the village: as soon as I had discovered the books that told some of the personal stories of survivors and their family members (Veerman 2001; 2010), all the images from the scene I had collected in my head and on camera started to fill up with meaning, brought up the villagers’ voices, telling the story of this peculiar, closely-knit community.
In this essay, I will share my impression of Volendam and how it was influenced by my increased knowledge of the villagers’ life stories. After a brief summary of the disaster, my initial views of the site are presented, followed by the meaningfulness that a story can add to an empirical experience.
At New Year’s Evening 2000-2001 at 12.30 a.m. Café De Hemel at Volendam caught fire when a bunch of sparklers (handheld fireworks) was lit inside the building. The sparklers’ sparks immediately set the bar's Christmas decorations aflame, as they were bone dry and are fire hazards. Preventive measures against such disasters were lacking: there were far too few emergency exits in the building for the number of people inside. The absence of openings in the building, however, caused the fire to consume all of its oxygen in a very short amount of time, extinguishing the flames almost immediately after a fireball had run through the entire place. The disaster killed fourteen people and heavily wounded another 200. The population at the bar consisted of an especially young crowd of whom many were younger than sixteen1.
Standing in front of the former café
As I stood in front of Dijk 154-156 – the premises in which café De Hemel was housed on the first floor, on top of another café the Wir War Bar – I was looking at the perfectly maintained green façade of an empty building, peeking through the window on the ground floor. It had a ‘For Rent' sign hanging on the window, which immediately seemed to link to the fire. Apparently, no other business had been accommodated there.
There was an old man standing in front of the empty building, leaning on his bicycle. I naively asked him whether this was the former café of ‘the fire’. The native Volendam resident confirmed what I was actually already sure of (I just needed an opening phrase) and started talking freely about everything that came to his mind.
'Everything on the top floor is still intact, just as they left it on that New Year’s Eve. All the props of the café are exactly in their old position, except for the money, which was left on the bar: that has disappeared. De Hemel was accessible for a while after the fire as a memorial for survivors, family and Volendam residents. A few youngsters who frequented the bar have also taken some items from the interior as a souvenir… [That night] fourteen kids have died… There were twelve-year-old children inside, what were they doing at a bar? Now nobody gets in anymore. The smell in there is awful and the interior has largely melted away' (old man in front of Dijk 154-156).
This first description of the disaster site already put a terrifying picture in my mind. The thought of this horrific melted fire scene, in which so many young kids experienced an incredibly traumatic night, silenced me while I was standing there, in front of the old narrator. As much as he was an insider of Volendam, he had not however been anywhere near the café on the night of the fire. To me, he sounded somewhat distant, or rather neutral, when he was talking about the disaster. To him ‘it was a tragic event, but it has been almost fourteen years ago, we have moved on.’
After my fieldwork I read the story of Simon Keizer, now a nationally famous singer, who was inside De Hemel during the fire:
‘It was an incredible evening and the alcohol was flowing freely. Perhaps, in retrospect, that had been my rescue, as it made me remain calm amidst the panic. I remember it getting completely dark. Everybody dropped to the ground … the fire ceased because of a lack of oxygen, but this lack of oxygen also caused two girls to be killed in the throng. At some point, I was lying on top of a stack of people. I blindly tried to find the exit, but I was completely disoriented … All of the sudden, a girl was hanging over the bar.’ Liesbeth Buijs, she was only thirteen years old. She had just walked in to wish her friends a happy new year. ‘You could only see her underwear, the rest had turned completely white. Afterwards, I realized it was all burned. She asked for her glasses. She had clearly not realized the severity of the situation. We had thrown water over her, after which we handed her over to others. She died that same day…’ (Simon Keizer in Veerman 2010: 91 [translated]).
This narrative confronted me with an entirely different representation of the disaster, one of a survivor. It made me relive seeing the quiet façade of the former café in the year 2014, realizing that I stood in front of a place where children had experienced extremely traumatic events, such as the ones described above.
Coffee next door
While sitting at the next-door coffee place, quickly scribbling my field notes over a cup of coffee, I gazed upon the picturesque harbor of Volendam. It was a Wednesday afternoon and in front of me, a parade occurred of day visitors and school-skipping youngsters – of about the same age of the 2001 café revelers. I saw a bunch of old people on a seaside bench, not planning to get off until dinnertime. A guide strolled down the quay, dressed in traditional clothing, who told his group of tourists about the café, where on New Year’s Eve a devastating fire had killed a bunch of young people. ‘It is ever still in the hands of that same owner,’ I recalled him adding to his story. ‘Nobody wants to buy, nor rent the property.’ As I was staring at the boats on this peaceful scenery, I contemplated my next move to hunt down more traces of ‘the fire’.
These traces I found when I read Maria Veerman’s story (Veerman 2010: 45). She remembers everything from that night:
‘This is it. They say that your life flashes in front of your eyes when it happens, but for me, it was actually true. … Until I realized that I did not want to give up. I started pulling the hair of the girl lying on top of me. I needed to pull myself off the floor, as I was glued to the floor with my skin and my clothes. Also, my shoes were glued to the floor, so I had to wrench myself away from that too. It was so surreal. [Firemen] brought me to the exit where somebody said to me ‘you look awful'. You see, I could not see myself. Outside I walked barefoot through the glass from the bashed windows. Near the fire truck they were working with atomizers, but sometimes the water came out with a full blow, which caused my skin to fly off my body.’ Maria was brought 200 meters down the street in café De Molen, where just as in the other adjoining bars, dozens of youngsters were held. … ‘Curiously, I was one of the first victims to arrive, but one of the last to be taken elsewhere. … ‘Your condition is not that bad,' a fireman told me. Nevertheless, I kept on getting colder and I started losing sensation in a few parts of my body’ (Ibid.: 47-48 [translated]).
Maria was one of the victims who were in a life-threatening condition, subjected to the triage of the limited medical staff. The same peaceful scenery I described in my field notes, had been the medical drama similar to that of a war zone, and I was sitting there, fourteen years later, looking for my next ‘disaster clue.’
Right before I moved on to the church and the cemetery, the woman serving our coffee told us that the premises might have actually been rented out to a company who will turn it into a tourist attraction. ‘I heard it will be a 5D Volendam experience, you know, with surrounding screens and a boat that moves on the virtual waves, so that you really live it.’
I crossed the bridge in front of the beautiful Volendam church on my way to the cemetery. At the burial ground, I tried not to draw too much attention, as I was afraid to come off as a disaster tourist. I subtly took a few pictures of the fourteen children’s beautifully maintained graves, lying in the area that was created especially for them. An impressive monument watched over them, acknowledging the grief of the community, a grief, which was also confirmed by the fresh flowers on each and every gravestone. On the monument, as well as on some of the gravestones, words were written of disbelief and indignation:
That fatal moment on that New Year’s Eve from hell
Brought indescribable suffering into our lives
So many plans, so much energy, so much young happiness
Suddenly, all their dreams were shattered
Because of laziness and negligence
We have lost our children and with that
The joy of life
With that pain and loss
We will have to learn to live
Hoping that the strength will then be given to us!
In loving memory of… (text on monument [translated])
This was a very strong text for me, as it clearly voiced the victim’s families' pain and anger about what had been allowed to happen. I figured that the laziness and negligence must have been projected mainly on the café owner and the municipality. The café did not meet most of the safety standards; nevertheless, nothing was done about the unsafe condition the café was in.
One story of anger and grief, from two parents who lost their son, I view as the personification of the emotions channeled through the monument’s text:
Klaas and Lida Jonk lost their son Edward to the fire. As soon as they heard what happened, Klaas and Lida went looking for their son through the chaos that ruled over the village. Edward was nowhere to be found. His parents were sent from station to station, without any results. Finally, the police informed them that a boy and a girl who had passed away laid in a church in Edam, a neighboring town. After reassuring whether the parents were ready to see these children, the policeman went away for twenty minutes, meanwhile laughing with his colleagues in a room nearby. At 07:00 a.m., Klaas and Lida finally got to the church at Edam, which turned out to be closed because of stormy weather. It became clear that these children had been lying in that church since 04:30 a.m.
After finding out that the boy was indeed their Edward, there was not much time to say goodbye to their son, as a detective rushed Klaas and Lida out of the church. This was the last time they would ever see their son, as they received a closed coffin in the wake, for Edward’s face had turned browner and browner during the following days after (Veerman 2001: 12-13).
Apart from the fact that café De Hemel did not comply with any safety measures, the entire emergency management lacked communication skills, as well as people skills. This caused Edward’s parents to feel bitterness towards the café’s owner and some of the town’s authorities. Their story made me see where exactly the monument's words of indignation were based on. Thinking about those gravestones after reading their story completely changed the way I read the emotional phrases and it allows me to understand the language that was used.
A beautiful chapter of Jonk’s family story is the initiatives the community took, to set up meetings with other parents who lost their children, for common grief, relief and comfort. This helped them a little more through their mourning process. Volendam is indeed a very tightly knit community, in which support is easily found (ibid.: 16-17). This trait shows us the strength of the picturesque fisher’s town, which had just gone through a devastating disaster.
Stepping onto the disaster site of Volendam has proven to be a two-phased experience for me. At first, I came there thinking I had a solid base of knowledge with my news media and scientific background readings. I was looking for traces of the disaster, trying to catch the thrill of that horrific night. Later, however, I found out about the personal stories collected by Eddy Veerman, and the readings brought me so much more inside knowledge and understanding for the sites I had seen: it was not just about obvious traces visible to the eye, like monuments or the building itself, that would make up the disaster site I was going to write an ethnography about. It is the memories of the people that lived the experience of the disaster: up until today, it is their memories that make Volendam a disaster site. At least, as long as they memorize the New Year’s Eve of 2000-2001 whenever they see the village’s traces, which they associate with it. Whenever I will return to Volendam, I will, too, remember the stories I have read and think about the resilience of the survivors, the victims’ families and the community. As to what the old man in front of Dijk 154-156 said, ‘Volendam has moved on’: I wonder how much this is true for the families who lost their child/brother/sister to the disaster. Convincing about his words, however, was the needless-to-say optimist kind of vibe I got from it. Following from the storytellers, I actually believe that this optimism indeed does reverberate through the fisher’s town Volendam2.
2 This optimism is clearly demonstrated in the documentary Dichter bij de Hemel (Waltman 2010), which tells the story of three Volendam Café Fire survivors with permanent facial injuries and lung damage, who climb the highest mountain in Africa, the Kilimanjaro.
Brand Volendam / Op die plek nooit meer feest Door HÃ©lène Butijn29 juni 2006, 11:04 Jan Veerman verkoopt zijn kroeg aan de gemeente. In het pand aan de Volendamse haven komt de eerste vijftig jaar geen horeca meer. Ouders van een van de slachtoffers leggen uit waarom heropening onbespreekbaar was voor de nabestaanden. Lees Meer...
Wat Gebeurde er Kort na Middernacht op 1 Januari 2001? http://www.nazorgvolendam.nl/persberichten/persberichten%20startpagina/Wat%20gebeurde %20er.htm (11/07/2014).
2001 Het Verdriet van Volendam. ‘s-Gravenhage: BZZTôH. 2010 Volendam 10 Jaar Later. Eindhoven: De Boekenmakers.
2010 Dichter bij de Hemel. Tros.