Update: Death toll in Iraq hospital fire rises to 92

Mourners react during a funeral in Najaf, Iraq, next to the coffins of victims who were killed in the fire [Alaa Al-Marjani /Reuters]
Mourners react during a funeral in Najaf, Iraq, next to the coffins of victims who were killed in the fire

The death toll from a fire that tore through a coronavirus ward at a hospital in southern Iraq has risen to 92, health officials have said, as grieving relatives slammed the government over the second such disaster within three months. Officials said more than 100 people were injured in the blaze at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital on Monday night in Nasiriya, highlighting the crippled healthcare system in the country amid decades of war and sanctions.

An investigation showed the fire began when sparks from faulty wiring spread to an oxygen tank that then exploded, police and civil defence authorities said. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi convened an emergency meeting and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar province, the hospital director and the city’s civil defence chief. The government also launched a time-bound investigation.

Al-Kadhimi called the tragedy “a deep wound in the consciousness of all Iraqis”. A statement from his office called for national mourning. In a tweet on Tuesday, President Barham Salih blamed the “catastrophe” at the hospital on “persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis”. A Nasiriya court said it had ordered the arrest of 13 local officials in connection with the fire.

Anguished relatives were still looking for traces of their loved ones on Tuesday morning, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. A blackened skull of a deceased female patient from the ward was found. The blaze trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward who rescue teams struggled to reach, a health worker told Reuters on Monday before entering the burning building.

Rescue teams were using a heavy crane to remove the charred and melted remains of the part of the hospital where Covid-19 patients were being treated, as relatives gathered nearby. Many cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriya is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.

“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze. Mohammed Fadhil, waiting to receive his bother’s body, said it was a disaster. “No quick response to the fire, not enough firefighters. Sick people burned to death. It’s a disaster,” he said.

While some bodies were collected for burial, with mourners weeping and praying over the coffins, the remains of more than 20 badly charred corpses required DNA tests to identify them.

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