A raging fire apparently caused by fireworks started to celebrate a Christian wedding engulfed a hall full of guests in northern Iraq, killing about 100 people and injuring 150 others, as authorities warned on Wednesday that the death toll could rise.
Authorities said flammable building materials also contributed to the latest disaster to hit Iraq’s shrinking Christian minority. In the chaotic aftermath of the fire, officials offered conflicting death tolls and security officials said they had arrested staff at the wedding hall as part of their investigation.
The fire broke out in the Hamdaniya district of Iraq’s Nineveh province, authorities said. This is a predominantly Christian area just outside the city of Mosul, about 205 miles northwest of Baghdad.
There was no official word on the cause of the fire, but Kurdish news channel Rudaw broadcast footage showing pyrotechnicians shooting flames from the floor of the event and lighting a chandelier.
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Multiple witnesses, including 50-year-old wedding attendee Faten Youssef, said the fire started as the bride and groom began their slow dance. The flames went through plastic decorations and the roof began to collapse, he said.
“The flames started falling on us,” Youssef told The Associated Press. “Things were falling down and blocking the way out.”
She said her family found their way out of a kitchen after the family battled smoke and flames and her son was unable to kick through a blocked exit door.
It was not immediately clear if the bride and groom were among the injured.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages, receiving oxygen as their families walked through the hallways and outside as workers organized more oxygen cylinders. Some of those burned include children. Ambulance sirens wailed for hours after the fire as paramedics pulled out the injured.
Extravagant wedding ceremonies are common in Iraq, as in many Middle Eastern countries. Families often invite hundreds of relatives and members of the wider community, spending heavily on spectacular ceremonies with elaborately decorated rooms, music and entertainers, often including fireworks.
Casualty numbers fluctuated in the hours after the incident, which is common in Iraq.
An initial health ministry statement, carried by the state-run Iraqi News Agency, said the fire killed more than 100 people and injured 150. Health officials in Nineveh province put the death toll at 114, while Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari later reported 93 dead.
A health ministry official, speaking to the AP midday Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said 30 bodies have been identified by their relatives, but the rest are so badly burned that they will require DNA identification.
It put the death toll at 94, with about 100 people still receiving medical treatment. “The death toll is expected to rise as some are in critical condition,” he said.
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Ahmed Dubardani, a health official in the province, told Rudaw that many of the injured suffered severe burns.
“The majority of them were completely burnt and some others had burnt 50 to 60% of their bodies,” Dubardani said.
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, priest at the wedding, said “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, up from 1.5 million in 2003. The total population of Iraq is over 40 million.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been the target of violence by extremists, first from al-Qaeda and then from the Islamic State militant group. Although the Nineveh Plains, their historic homeland, was overrun by the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns are still mostly ruins and lack basic services, and many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the United States States.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s Interior and Health officials to provide relief, his office said in a statement online.
Hamdaniya is located in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq and under the control of its central government, although it is located nearby and is claimed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq. Masour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, ordered hospitals there to help those injured in the fire.
The United Nations Mission in Iraq also expressed its condolences over the fire, describing its staff as “shocked and hurt by the massive loss of life and injuries” from the fire.
Interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said the initial forensic report described a “lack of safety and security measures” at the site. Iraqi security forces arrested nine workers at the site as part of their investigation, said Abdullah Al Jabouri, a security official who heads the Nineveh Operations Command.
One of the venue’s owners, Choony Naboo, declined to comment when contacted by the AP. “I can’t talk right now, I’m too busy,” he said before hanging up.
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Civil defense officials cited by the Iraqi News Agency described the exterior of the wedding hall as decorated with a highly flammable “sandwich” type of cladding that is illegal in the country.
“The fire led to the collapse of parts of the hall as a result of the use of highly flammable, low-cost building materials that collapse within minutes when the fire breaks out,” the civil defense said.
Experts say cheaper sandwich panels don’t always meet stricter safety standards and are especially dangerous in buildings without breaks to slow or stop a potential fire. This includes the 2017 Grenfell fire in London which killed 72 people in the biggest fire loss on British soil since World War II, as well as multiple high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates.
Similar panels have been blamed in several previous fires in Iraq. In July 2021, a hospital fire in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah was determined to have been caused by sandwich panels. It killed between 60 and 92 people, according to conflicting accounts from officials at the time.