The Hague calls for photos, video footage in investigation into Scheveningen fires

New Year's bonfire tower on Scheveningen beach, 31 December 2018
New Year's bonfire tower on Scheveningen beach, 31 December 2018Photo: Vreugdevuur Scheveningen / Facebook

The municipality of The Hague is calling on the public to send in photos or video footage of the New Year's bonfire on Scheveningen beach and the clouds of sparks and ash it caused. The footage will be used in the investigation into the rain of sparks that caused multiple fires in Scheveningen over New Year's, NOS reports. 

At least one home, one garage company and a snack kiosk on the boulevard were damaged by fires started by sparks being blown from the bonfire across Scheveningen. Multiple cars and bicycles were also damaged. On New Year's Day mayor Pauline Krikke of The Hague announced a thorough investigation into what exactly caused these fires.

Sources at the police and the municipality of The Hague told NOS that fear of disturbances played a big role when the municipality decided to allow the New Year's bonfire to continue. The municipality knew that the bonfire tower on Scheveningen beach was too high, but feared that banning its lighting would result in riots and arson during New Year's, the sources said. 

The Hague triangle of mayor, police and prosecutor firmly deny that this was the case. "When making plans and making decisions, I will never be led by threatening language from anyone", Mayor Krikke said, according to the broadcaster. "I am not impressed by strong language and make the decisions that are needed." The canceling of the bonfires was never discussed. "In the entire decision making, threatening language or possible threats of disturbances did not affect us in any way. I reject that suggestion", the mayor said. 

The investigation into events will also focus on the agreements made on the construction of the bonfire towers, Krikke said. She pointed out that since the start of this tradition 25 years ago, no permit has been involved. "There is, however, an approach based on firm agreements, where safety has always been the most important criterion for the municipality. These agreements have become considerably stronger over the years", she said. 

According to NOS, the mayor evaded a question from the broadcaster about if someone went to check whether the bonfire towers held to the agreements on New Year's Eve and gave the green light to light them. She only stressed that "the triangle weighs the situation. So we saw that the fires were higher than had been agreed. We therefore put up fences for the safety of the public at a greater distance."

The builders of the bonfire deny that they did anything wrong. The tower was not too high, no extra wood was added secretly overnight, and if the fire department had said it was too dangerous to light the bonfire due to the wind, they would not have lit it, three organizers of the Scheveningen Bonfire said at a press conference on Wednesday. According to the organizers, there was daily consultation with the municipality, fire brigade and police about the construction of the tower of pallets. The tower was eventually 10 thousand cubic meters large, as per the agreements, they said, according to NOS.

"On 30 December the municipality ordered that no more wood could be supplied, because at that time there was already 9,300 cubic meters. It was then 30 meters high", Peter van Zaanen of the organizing foundation said at the press conference. "The last three trailers with pallets, which were almost at Scheveningen, we sent back. There was still 700 cubic meters next to the stack and we brought that up."

The organizers did not want to confirm that the tower ended up 48 meters high, and thus 13 meters higher than allowed, as one of the builders previously told NOS Radio 1 Journaal. A land surveyor from Almere has been hired to determine the exact height and content of the bonfire tower. 

The builders said they will fully cooperate in the investigation. "We are ourselves still completely in shock. For us it is still a mystery how this could have happened. When the fire was lit, it was wind still. It started off nicely, but by 1:30 a.m. a wind suddenly rose from the northwest. That led to tornadoes with pieces of charcoal. Would that also have happened with a somewhat lower tower? Probably", Van Zaanen said.