Ask any student who has spent their Erasmus year in Leuven — they will tell you it’s a great city, and they had the time of their lives.
Two of the latest to arrive were equally excited at the prospect of broadening their experience in the historic Irish College that once provided refuge and training for priests forbidden in their home country.
“Just got a placement in Belgium!!! A great start of the day!!” 22-year-old Dace Zarina wrote on Dec 17 in one of her last posts on her Facebook page.
Sarah Gibadlo, her 19-year-old room mate and fellow student in placement in the restaurant of the old Irish College, must have been equally happy.
The stone building, with many of its monastic elements still in place, has found a new purpose in the modern age. Once again its task is to give continental Europe and its Irish citizens a greater understanding of one another.
But yesterday the cloister was quiet and the many lecture rooms and the restaurant silent as students and staff tried to come to terms with the tragedy that happened before dawn.
The Irish pub, the Thomas Stapleton, was quiet too. Not that many students go there very often, said Bryan Kilduff from Meath, except for big matches. It’s called after an Irishman who was professor of Greek and the rector of Leuven University more than 300 years ago.
The Cafe ’t Vervolg — which means To be Continued — is a more usual hangout for the students, but it too had no Irish yesterday afternoon. Even the Oude Markt, referred to as the longest bar in Europe with its 40-plus cafes and bars, appeared quiet.
Students make up half the 100,000 residents in the centre of the city, the capital of Flemish Brabant 25km east of Brussels. It boasts the oldest Catholic university in existence and one of the largest hospitals in Europe — both involved in cutting-edge research and attracting world-class researchers.
Leuven is also famous as the home of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing group whose buildings take up a sizeable portion of the city.
Each summer the historic centre with its ancient stone buildings reverberates to the Summer Rock Festival, part of the rich cultural life it offers its temporary residents.
The university has its own student residences it manages itself and an extensive collection of approved accommodation mostly rented out by private landlords and all listed on their Kotwijs (Studio) website. All are registered and checked by the fire department, the university was anxious to point out.
The institute provides accommodation for more than 50 people in single and double ensuite bedrooms and suites that are frequently taken by the business groups that use the premises.
The 10 young women — eight on academic studies as part of their Erasmus year — were staying in a house nearby that is regularly used by students. Dace and Sara were on work experience in the college itself, getting hands-on experience as part of their bachelor of business degree in catering and hotel management.
Mayor of Leuven, former minister Louis Tobback, said the building was not registered with them but prosecutor Sarah Callewaert said they did not know the situation and it was forming part of their investigations — which could continue for weeks.
However, the institute issued a statement last night saying the building did fulfil all the requirements and two years ago its insurers carried out a full inspection. It said the building had all necessary facilities, including an alarm, fire extinguishers, and a fire escape.
The university, which co-operates closely with the institute, said the fire raised issues about the safety of student accommodation in the city.
A joint police/prosecutor investigation has now begun into how the fire started, how the students died and whether all the regulations were adhered to.
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