82 killed in Iraq corona hospital fire

26 April, 2021 12:00 AM printer

BAGHDAD: A fire that ravaged a Covid-19 hospital in Iraq's capital killed 82 people pre-dawn Sunday, sparking angry calls for officials to be sacked in a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure.

Many of the victims were on respirators when the blaze at Baghdad's Ibn al-Khatib hospital started with an explosion caused by "a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders", medical sources told AFP.

Flames spread quickly across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital's intensive care unit where the most severe Covid-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.

"The hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products," Iraq's civil defence arm said.

Many "victims died because they had to be moved and were taken off ventilators, while the others were suffocated by the smoke," it added.

The country's human rights commission called on the prime minister, who has so far suspended several officials, to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and "bring him to justice", as anger swelled on social media.

At least 23 deaths were reported by medics in the immediate aftermath of the fire, with an official toll of 82 killed and 110 wounded announced later by the interior ministry. Videos on social media showed firefighters battling to put out the blaze as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.

"It was the people (civilians) who got the wounded out," Amir, 35, told AFP, saying he saved his hospitalised brothers "by the skin of his teeth". Iraq's hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages of medicines and hospital beds.    

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze and declared three days of national mourning. Parliament announced it would devote its Monday session to the tragedy.

After daybreak, dozens of tall oxygen cylinders that had been evacuated could be seen lined up outside the building, alongside gurneys and scattered debris, an AFP photographer said.

More than 200 patients in all were rescued, according to the health ministry.

The fire -- caused by negligence often linked to endemic corruption in Iraq, according to several sources -- sparked anger, with a hash-tag demanding the health minister be sacked trending on Twitter.

Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry "to establish a commission of enquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice".