A fire ignited by exploding oxygen cylinders in a COVID ward has killed 92 people at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
It took firefighters several hours to put out the blaze after it broke out at al-Hussein hospital on Monday night. Dozens of people were injured in the fire, according to figures released by Iraqi health officials. Police said preliminary investigations indicated that faulty wiring had caused oxygen tanks to explode, starting the fire.
The ceilings and walls of the recently built 70-bed coronavirus isolation unit were reduced to rubble in the aftermath of the fire.
Footage of the fire circulated on social media in Iraq, showing extremely distressing scenes of clothes and blankets of patients scattered around, while volunteers and family members gathered nearby to rescue and evacuate people from the flames.
This is the second major hospital fire in a COVID-19 treatment unit in Iraq in only a few months, after a blaze in Baghdad’s al-Khatib hospital’s ICU unit broke out in late April, killing 82 people and wounding 110 more. The incident caused national outrage and led to the resignation of the Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi in May.
People collect blankets as the fire takes hold. Photo: ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images
A few hours after the latest fire in Nasiriyah, crowds gathered nearby, heartbroken by the death of their loved ones, but also furious that such a fire had taken place again. They chanted “political parties burned us,” while more demonstrations took place on Tuesday during funerals of some of the victims of the fire.
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi caretaker prime minister, held a hastily-arranged emergency meeting last night. He announced the suspension of directors from the hospital and healthcare department officials in the area, promising a thorough investigation into the incident.
Kadhimi said that the fire had caused a “deep wound” in Iraq during a ministerial meeting on Tuesday, and he promised that he would hold “corrupt” officials accountable.
People attend a funeral for a victim of the hospital fire. Photo: Karar Essa/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
“We’ll not tolerate the corrupt who play with people’s lives regardless of their title and affiliations,” he said.
The Iraqi healthcare sector is extremely underfunded and fatigued by years of economic embargoes, conflict, corruption and mismanagement. It has been placed under huge strain since the start of the pandemic, while a lack of serious government authority over safety and fire regulations has led to a series of fires in public buildings.
Iraq has officially recorded 17,000 coronavirus-related deaths, and has been facing a surge in infection numbers with over 9,000 daily new positive cases in the past few months according to the latest figures released by the Health Ministry.
The Iraqi parliament held a session on Tuesday to discuss the fire, and Parliament Speaker Muhammad Al-Halbousi wrote in a tweet that the tragedy is “clear evidence of the failure to protect the lives of Iraqis,” and urged to put an end to these catastrophic failures.
Iraqi President Barham Salih described the incident as a “catastrophe” and blamed it on “persistent corruption and mismanagement that underestimated the lives of Iraqis and prevented reforming the performance of institutions.”