@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Pedrogao Fire Ignited Envy, Says Witness
Alzira Luiz in front of her house in Rapos, Castanheira de Pera, which was destroyed by the fire and is still being rebuilt four years later (Photo by Paulo Novais)
The trial of alleged dereliction of political office, fraud and document forgery in the rebuilding of homes after the Pedrogao Grande fire resumed with testimony for the defense, reported SIC Noticias (September 9).
Several witnesses testified before a panel of judges, including the wife of accused former municipality councilor, Bruno Gomes.
“The flames passed that day, but hell stayed in Pedrogao Grande,” said Sofia Neves, who is a lawyer by profession.
The trial that began on October 26, 2020, resumed on September 9 after a five-week court recess. Besides Gomes, the case has 27 other defendants, including the president of Pedrogao Grande municipality, Valdemar Alves. Gomes and Alves face 20 counts of dereliction of political office and 20 counts of document forgery and fraud. Gomes was present in court but not Alves.
“The president was hierarchically above him (Bruno Gomes), who had no delegation of powers,” Neves said at the Court of Leiria in Batalha. “Everything went to the president. He was the one who dispatched everything. Bruno didn’t deliberate or take decisions. He didn’t sign documents. He carried out the tasks.”
The fire on June 17, 2017, killed 66, wounded 253 and destroyed nearly 500 houses, reported SAPO24 (July 1).
Neves testified that the monetary compensation awarded for the deaths of family members and the reconstruction of houses “generated a lot of envy, even among families”, according to SIC Noticias (September 9).
“Bruno recounted comments from people who said: ‘Why didn’t anyone die for me? That neighbor got rich.’ Or: ‘It’s too bad my house didn’t burn down. My neighbor now has a new house.”
Neves said that Bruno Gomes “did not favor anyone, not even his mother.”
“Bruno had to roll up his sleeves and help people in the rebuilding (which he viewed as a mission). . . . He was never the same again. It took days, weeks and months with a lot of work and sacrifice of his personal life.”
Neves told the judges that her husband had been “happy and in a good mood and, nowadays, he is not. He lost that joy, is always silent and isolates himself.”
Pedro Pimpao, a friend of Bruno Gomes and a former Social Democratic Party (PSD) deputy in the Assembly of the Republic elected by the Leiria constituency, confirmed that the defendant “no longer participates in get-togethers with friends”.
Pimpao recalled that in the scope of his own duties at the time and because he was from Pompal, which is also in Leiria District, and had “affinity with the territory”, he went to Pedrogao Grande on the Sunday after the outbreak of the fire" on Saturday.
“Bruno was ‘a jack of all trades’. It was necessary to help resolve situations and find answers. I felt in Bruno a genuine desire to give all that they had to help salvage lives.”
The trial was scheduled to continue on September 13.
At this stage of the legal process, the various witnesses are relatives, friends and neighbors of those who rebuilt houses after the fire and who are suspected of illegality. Most aim to show that the fire destroyed houses that were main residences, according to SIC Noticias (September 13).
Four years later, there are still 13 families who have not been able to return to their homes: five are unfinished, five have been stopped by court order and three are nearing completion, according to SIC Noticias (June 17).
Before the court recess, Vice-Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo testified when called by the defense for the president, Valdemar Alves, reported SAPO24 (July 1).
“(Pedrogao Grande) had a very weak structure for the dimension of the problem it was facing,” said Gouveia e Melo, a Navy officer who commanded a detachment of the Armed Forces that was deployed to Pedrogao Grande to help the inhabitants after the fire.
“The impression I had at the time was that the City Council was half a dozen people, if that,” said the officer, who has been decorated for his leadership of the COVID-19 vaccine Task Force. “They were a bit lost in the middle of that very serious problem, many of them in a state of shock.”
Gouveia e Melo listed the work carried out by the military, stressing that there were “10 mobile patrols always circulating.”
“We distributed food, clothes, transported people and gave psychological support”. In addition, a survey of people who had lost property with “extensive geo-referenced photographic reports and interviews” was executed and, then, delivered to the municipality when the detachment, which had been based at the Casa da Cultura, left Pedrogao Grande.
“We did not organize the reconstruction of the houses. . . . What I conveyed was that the houses should be rebuilt, with priority, for those without a place to live. I do not share any Jacobin idea that property is only what is essential,” he said, but added that “reconstruction is a psychological cure for those people who have lost everything.”
“When we left there, we were still putting tarpaulins on the roofs (of houses) of people who needed a place to take shelter.”
"For that population to recover, it is not enough to give them a house to avoid the rain. The entire economic fabric has to be recovered, which is why there are priorities.”
Recalling that he arrived in Pedrogao Grande in the final phase of the fire and that the military stayed for about another month, the naval officer testified:
“The population, after the impact of the fire when the firefighters all left, was left alone.”
About the work of the president, Gouveia e Melo stressed that “he was making his maximum effort.”
“I wouldn’t say I would be panicked but quite disoriented in a situation that was too much . . . In the face of a problem of that gravity and extent. Only highly trained people, . . . disconnected from the region, could manage to have the cold-bloodedness to be able to make decisions without stress.”
Gouveia e Melo added that he experienced the situation intensely:
“Still today, I suffer from what I saw, and I am a trained person.”
The trial will last, at least, until the end of 2021, as sessions are scheduled until November 25, according to Diario de Noticias (June 29).
“At this date, 87 defense witnesses have yet to be questioned . . . ,” said the presiding judge in a statement to the press. In addition to this extended time, “this schedule may be subject to changes due not only to the duration of the inquiries and statements of the procedural subjects but also to any other circumstances that may arise.”
A separate Pedrogao Grande fire trial began on May 24 with 11 defendants to determine responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44.