20 July 2024

At least 100 people were killed and more than 150 injured when a fire broke out during a wedding at an event hall in the northern Iraqi town of Hamdaniyah, officials said early Wednesday.

At the main hospital in Hamdaniyah — a predominantly Christian town east of Mosul that is also known as Qaraqosh — an AFP photographer saw ambulances arriving with sirens blaring and dozens of people gathering in the courtyard to donate blood.

Others could be seen gathering in front of the open doors of a refrigerated truck loaded with black body bags.

Health authorities in Nineveh province, where the town is located, “have counted 100 dead and more than 150 injured in the fire at a marriage hall in Hamdaniyah”, the official Iraqi press agency INA reported, citing a “preliminary tally”.

The count was confirmed to AFP by health ministry spokesman Saif Al-Badr.

“The majority of the injured suffer from burns and asphyxiation,” he said, adding that there had also been crowd crushes at the scene.

In a statement, civil defence authorities reported the presence of prefabricated panels inside the event hall that were “highly flammable and contravened safety standards”.

The danger was compounded by the “release of toxic gases linked to the combustion of the panels”, which contained plastic.

“The fire caused some parts of the ceiling to fall due to the use of highly flammable, low-cost construction materials,” the statement said, with “preliminary information” suggesting fireworks were to blame for the blaze.

– ‘We were suffocating’ –

Wedding attendee Rania Waad, who sustained a burn to her hand, said that as the bride and groom “were slow dancing, the fireworks started to climb to the ceiling, the whole hall went up in flames”.

“We couldn’t see anything,” the 17-year-old said, choking back sobs. “We were suffocating, we didn’t know how to get out.”

In a brief statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani called on the ministers of health and the interior to “mobilise all rescue efforts” to help the victims of the fire.

The ministry of health announced that “medical aid trucks” had been dispatched to the area from Baghdad and other provinces, adding that its teams in Nineveh had been mobilised to care for the injured.

Safety standards in Iraq’s construction and transport sectors are often disregarded, and the country, whose infrastructure is in disrepair after decades of conflict, is regularly the scene of fatal fires and accidents.

In July 2021, a fire in the Covid unit of a hospital in the country’s south killed more than 60 people.

And in April of the same year, exploding oxygen tanks triggered a fire at a hospital in Baghdad — also dedicated to Covid patients — that left more than 80 people dead.

As was the case with many Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains, Qaraqosh and its churches were methodically ransacked by jihadists from the Islamic State group after they entered the town in 2014.

Qaraqosh was slowly rebuilt after the group’s ouster in 2017, and Pope Francis visited the town in March 2021.

Agence France-Presse