A massive fire apparently caused by fireworks set off to celebrate a Christian wedding consumed a room full of guests in northern Iraq, killing more than 100 people and injuring 150 others, as authorities warned Wednesday that the toll could rise further.
Authorities said flammable construction materials also contributed to the latest disaster to hit Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority. The fire occurred in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province, authorities said. It is a predominantly Christian area just outside the city of Mosul, about 320 kilometers northwest of Baghdad.
There has been no official word on the cause of the fire, but Kurdish news channel Rudaw broadcast footage showing fireworks being fired from the event floor and igniting a chandelier.
In the aftermath of the fire, only charred metal and debris were visible as people walked through the scene of the fire, with the only light coming from television cameras and spectators’ cell phones.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages, receiving oxygen, while their families crowded the hallways and outside as workers organized more oxygen cylinders. Among those burned were children. Ambulance sirens blared for hours after the fire as paramedics evacuated the injured.
Another man injured in the hospital fire also told Rudaw that the fire started while the couple was preparing for their slow dance.
“They lit fireworks,” he said. “He hit the ceiling, which caught fire.”
He added: “The entire room caught fire in seconds. »
Health authorities in Ninawa province put the death toll at 114, although federal authorities did not immediately update their figure of at least 100 deaths. Health Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr put the number of injured at 150 in an earlier statement published by the official Iraqi news agency.
Other footage broadcast on other local television networks appeared to show the bride and groom on the dance floor when the fire broke out Tuesday evening, stunned by the sight of the burning debris. It was not immediately clear if they were among the injured.
“They were about to do a slow dance and then they lit this dancing thing and it caught fire,” an injured woman told Rudaw from a hospital stretcher.
“All efforts are being made to provide relief to those affected by this unfortunate accident,” al-Badr said.
Ahmed Dubardani, provincial health official, told Rudaw that many of the injured suffered serious burns.
“The majority of them were completely burned and others had 50 to 60 percent of their bodies burned,” Dubardani said. “It’s not good at all. The majority of them were not in good condition.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s interior and health officials to provide relief, his office said in an online statement.
Najim al-Jubouri, governor of Nineveh province, said some of the injured had been transferred to regional hospitals. He warned that there were no final figures yet on casualties from the fire, suggesting the death toll could rise further. He also declared a week of mourning.
Hamdaniya lies in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains and is under the control of its central government, although it is close to and claimed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq. Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, ordered the creation of hospitals to help those injured in the fire.
The United Nations mission in Iraq also offered its condolences over the fire, describing its staff as “shocked and hurt by the enormous loss of life and injuries” in the fire.
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest present at the wedding, said it was unclear who was responsible for the fire.
“This could be an error on the part of the event organizers or venue hosts, or perhaps a technical error,” Khoury told the Associated Press. “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
Civil protection officials cited by the Iraqi news agency described the exterior of the wedding hall as being decorated with a type of highly flammable “sandwich panel” cladding, which is illegal in the country.
“The fire caused parts of the hall to collapse due to the use of inexpensive and highly flammable construction materials which collapsed within minutes when the fire broke out,” civil defense said.
It’s unclear why Iraqi authorities allowed the coating to be used on the hall, even though corruption and mismanagement remain rampant two decades after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Although some types of coverings may be made with fire-resistant materials, experts say those that caught fire in the wedding hall and elsewhere were not designed to meet stricter safety standards and often failed. been placed on buildings without any break to slow down or stop a possible fire. This includes the Grenfell fire in London in 2017, which killed 72 people, the largest fire on British soil since World War II, as well as multiple skyscraper fires in the United Arab Emirates.
The fire is the latest disaster to strike Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, which over the past two decades has been violently targeted by extremists first from al-Qaeda and then from the militant group State. Islamic. Although the Nineveh Plains, a historic homeland, were recaptured from the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns are still mostly in ruins and lack basic services. Many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the United States.
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, up from 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total population is more than 40 million.