Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever has reacted for the first time to the tragic road accident in which two children died last Tuesday, and the controversy surrounding his party colleague.
De Wever said he had kept silent in respect for the Jewish mourning tradition of shiva, which lasts a week. Yesterday he posted a message to his personal Facebook page, in which he wrote:
“Seven days ago a terrible drama happened in Antwerp. Two children, sisters aged less than 2 and 9 years old, died in a traffic accident. At that moment, the world stood still for the entire city, for all its inhabitants. The sadness and compassion was palpable in all sinjors [the local word for Antwerp people – AH], of whatever origin or belief.”
De Wever went on to explain that the Jewish rite of shiva – the two girls were children of the city’s Jewish quarter – imposes a seven-day period of mourning on the family, but that now that it is past, they may go about their business again.
“As mayor, I have the privilege to often share in the greatest joy of the people of Antwerp. But if townspeople need it, I am also near them in their greatest sorrow,” he writes. “Meetings with relatives of fatal victims of accidents or with victims of serious criminal offences always make a very strong and lasting impression. Whatever the circumstances, their loss always feels like a personal failure. Therefore, in addition to my condolences to the family, I would also like to express my deep regret that this tragedy happened in this way in our city.”
In the meantime, De Wever’s party colleague Koen Kennis (N-VA), city councillor for mobility, has been criticised for his decision to end a test during which, for three months, the crossing where the children were killed became conflict-free. In other words, the traffic lights were organised in such a way that no traffic was allowed to move in either direction while the lights were green for pedestrians.
Kennis explained that the conflict-free situation was a problem for the hospital situated just metres from the junction in question, but the hospital later said it had not expressed an opinion, and had indeed not been consulted.
“The circumstances of the tragic accident are still under investigation. Apart from that, this drama pushes us in any case with the problem of road safety in the Lange Leemstraat. This requires structural solutions that are unfortunately far from simple and quick to implement,” De Wever writes.
In fact, the circumstances are fairly simple. Pedestrians on the Lange Leemstraat had a green light to cross. A lorry turning left from the Sint-Vincentiusstraat, quite lawfully, struck the children down as they crossed.
The only question that remains is whether the lorry driver could see the children, aged only nine years and 18 months. The question as to whether the girls had grown used to the conflict-free situation on the crossing that had been in force for three months can now no longer be answered.
“In any case, the debate deserves better than the wording that some people felt they had to use immediately after the drama,” De Wever goes on.
“Of course you can ask questions about operational and policy choices made on this very busy traffic axis. It should be clear, however, that no policymaker or official involved has ever intended or wished to organise traffic unsafely.”