At least 100 people died when a fire broke out at a wedding in northern Iraq, apparently after fireworks were set off inside the building.
The cause of Thursday night’s fire in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh was not immediately known, but early indications are that fireworks caused the fire in the packed reception hall. Moreover, the fire spread rapidly due to the large amount of “highly flammable” building material.
At the town’s main hospital, numerous ambulances rushed in, while dozens of people gathered to donate blood. Other people were seen in front of the open doors of a cooler with black body bags.
A preliminary indication from Iraq’s official INA news service is that health authorities in Nineveh province put the death toll at more than 100, with more than 150 injured after the fire at the wedding hall in Hamdaniyah, as the town is also known.
The death toll was also confirmed by a spokesperson for the Department of Health, Saif al-Badr.
Al-Badr says most of the injured are being treated for burns and lack of oxygen. Other guests were injured in the stampede as people frantically tried to get away from the flames.
The Iraqi Red Crescent says more than 450 injuries have been reported, but no specific death toll could be given.
Civil defense authorities confirmed the presence of prefabricated panels inside the reception hall. It is “highly flammable and a breach of safety standards”.
The danger was exacerbated by the “emission of toxic gases associated with the burning of the panels” containing plastic.
“The fire caused parts of the ceiling to collapse due to the highly flammable, low-cost building material,” the statement read. “Preliminary information” blames the fire on fireworks that were set off.
‘We were suffocating’
Wedding guest Rania Waad, who suffered a burn on her hand, says that while the bride and groom were dancing, the fireworks went up to the roof and the whole hall went up in flames.
“We couldn’t see anything,” said the 17-year-old crying. “We were suffocating. We didn’t know how to get out.”
Emergency crews sifted through the burned debris and combed the scene by flashlight.
In a short statement, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani appealed to the respective ministers of health and interior affairs to “mobilize all rescue efforts” to assist the victims.
The Department of Health says “medical aid trucks” have been sent to the scene from Baghdad and other provinces and teams in Nineveh have been mobilized to help care for patients.
The governor of Nineveh, Nejm al-Juburi, announced a week-long period of mourning.
Safety standards in Iraq’s construction sector are often disregarded and the country, whose infrastructure is already extremely dilapidated after years of conflict, is often the scene of fatal fires and accidents.
In July 2021, a fire broke out in the Covid unit of a hospital in the south of Iraq, claiming the lives of 60 people. In April of the same year, oxygen tanks exploded at a hospital in Baghdad – also in a Covid ward – and more than 80 people died.
Like many other Christian towns in the region, jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) also invaded and looted this town in 2014. Churches were gradually rebuilt after the group was kicked out in 2017, and Pope Francis visited the town in March 2021.