Beliefnet
VOLENDAM, Netherlands, Jan. 4 (AP)--The phones in the church office rang off the hook with calls from disconsolate parishioners as volunteer Cees de Wit leafed through a book of prayers.

"I'm going to visit a family this afternoon and I want something that will help comfort them," said de Wit, whose son narrowly escaped death in a New Year's night club fire that killed ten people, mostly teenagers, and injured around 200.

"I feel I owe it to them," he said.

St. Vincentius and its sister parish, Our Beloved Lady Star of the Sea, have become fonts of succor and solace in this close-knit Roman Catholic fishing village, where almost everyone is related to at least one of the victims.

Wakes have been held nightly since Christmas decorations exploded into flames at De Hemel (The Heaven) in Volendam's old harbor, a favorite subject for Renoir and other 19th century painting masters lured by its toy-like waterfront houses.

Hundreds of partygoers on the top floor of the cramped three-story wooden structure panicked as the rooms went black with smoke and all but one of the emergency exits were blocked.

The disco owner, Jan Veerman, said in a television interview Wednesday that pine branches blanketing the ceiling were inadvertently ignited by a reveler waving sparklers.

Veerman, one of Volendam's leading entrepreneurs, claimed he hadn't seen a national cafe association reminder to spray Christmas decorations with a flame retardant. Police questioned him Thursday.

In the town council, Mayor Frank Ijsselmuiden's administration was accused of laxness in forcing Veerman to comply with fire safety regulations.

Volendam's spirit of solidarity dates back to the 14th century, when it was settled by Basque fisherman whose descendants resisted the Dutch Reformation.

It is now one of the most religious communities in the increasingly secular Netherlands, with half its nearly 20,000 residents regularly attending Sunday mass.

Last year, the town celebrated the 140th anniversary of St. Vincentius, which has produced scores of priests and missionaries that followed Volendam's fishermen and traders across the seas.

"In Volendam, joy and sadness are connected to the church," said de Wit.

Starting Friday, the churches are hosting the funerals of the victims, including two 13-year-old girls. With scores of critically injured teens still in hospitals across Northern Europe, officials fear the death toll could rise further.

As youngsters with burn wounds covering their bodies trickle back to Volendam, the scale of the tragedy is only beginning to unfold.

Around 80 percent of the 200 injured youths are students at the Dom Bosco High School. Their mutilated bodies will be constant grim reminders of New Year's Day 2001.

"I'm visiting families where the despair is unfathomable," Father Jan Berkhout of St. Vincentius told The Associated Press.

"I have no solutions, no words to help them get over their grief," said the clergyman, who instead reads them a New Testament verse: "Take courage! ... Don't be afraid" (Matthew 14).

De Wit, a tax adviser at the local water board, has taken a vacation to help a small contingent of volunteers arranging funerals, life insurance payments and psychological counseling for victims and their families.

Surrounded by Protestant towns, Volendammers have preserved their faith by marrying within the community and relying on one another for help in times of distress.

"People are not used to picking up the phone and calling" government agencies and aid organizations, said another volunteer, Nico Karhof, a financial consultant and city council member.

De Wit, whose nephew was also among the victims, sees a ray of sunshine in the dark tragedy that has spared no one.

"It helps you understand the magnitude of the parents' loss and be of help to them," he said as he found the verse he was looking for in the liturgy collection.

It said: "In the deepest darkness, He knows to create light."

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