At least 82 people died in a huge hospital fire Saturday night in Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Sunday.
Another 110 people were injured in the blaze at Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, according to ministry spokesman Major General Khaled Al-Muhanna.
The fire is believed to have started after oxygen tanks exploded, according to two health officials at the hospital.
Murtadha Riyadh’s grandmother and aunt were both on the hospital’s second floor ICU ward when the fire erupted.
He was nearby picking up medicine for his grandmother when he suddenly heard explosions, he told CNN. “I ran back to the hospital. I called them to check on them. They told me, ‘Don’t come up, we are being evacuated,’ but they could not make it.”
“I rushed to the first floor (of the hospital) to help but I could not, I was suffocating. Then fire broke out,” Riyadh said.
Minutes later health workers and neighborhood volunteers started carrying out charred bodies.
Social media videos showed a chaotic scene as firefighters scrambled to put out the blaze and health workers tried to evacuate patients. Health workers and civil defense teams were ultimately able to save at least 200 people, including patients, according to Iraq’s Health Ministry.
But neither Riyadh’s grandmother, Noriya Fatthala, 75, nor his aunt, Rajaa Ali, 60, would be among the survivors.
“Both my grandmother and my aunt died of suffocation,” Riyadh told CNN at a morgue in Baghdad where he waited to collect their bodies, bloody gashes from his failed rescue attempt still visible across one arm.
“No one could imagine this could happen, but it’s all bad management,” Riyadh told CNN. “I blame health sector.”
A political reckoning
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has said that 10 million Iraqi dinar ($6,800) will be given to family members of each victim.
He has also ordered the suspension of Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and Baghdad Governor Mohammed al-Atta during an emergency session with his cabinet Sunday. The two will be questioned in connection to the hospital fire, according to a statement released by al-Kadhimi’s office.
The Prime Minister ordered an “investigation that should be completed within five days, and a report to be submitted to the Council of Ministers,” it said.
Civil defense teams are still “investigating the causes that led to this fire,” according to a Health Ministry statement.
People from all over Iraq are referred to the hospital in southeastern Baghdad, including many with Covid-19.
Twenty-eight of the known victims were being treated in Covid-19 ICU wards, said Ali Akram al-Bayati of the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq (IHCHR). The organization has described the incident as a “crime against patients who were forced by the severity of the disease as a result of Covid-19 infection to be hospitalized.”
Iraqi President Barham Salih has offered condolences to the families of the victims, saying those found responsible must be held accountable.
In a statement released by his office, Salih supported “the decisions adopted by the Iraqi government and the Parliament to call for an immediate investigation into the cause of the blaze until those at fault have been brought to justice,” the statement added. He also urged all possible efforts to treat those injured in the fire.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed “shock and pain at the enormity of the tragic incident” affecting Covid-19 patients at the hospital, according to a statement from her office Sunday.
Journalists Aqeel Najim in Baghdad and Eyad Kourdi in Gaziantep contributed to this report.