Negligence blamed for massive blaze at Iraq hospital

Relatives searched for loved ones Sunday after a fire killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze began with an exploding oxygen cylinder.

AP/Photo/Khalid Mohammed
A family member of fire victims waits outside IIbn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, April 25, 2021. A fire broke out in a Baghdad hospital dedicated to caring for coronavirus patients after oxygen cylinders reportedly exploded late Saturday, according to officials.

The death toll from a massive fire in a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients rose to 82 Sunday, as anxious relatives searched for those missing and the government suspended key health officials for alleged negligence.

The blaze, described by one witness as “volcanoes of fire,” swept through the intensive care unit of the Ibn al-Khatib hospital which tends exclusively to coronavirus patients with severe symptoms. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

Maher Ahmed, a nurse, was called at 9:45 p.m. Saturday night, to come to the scene and help evacuate patients.

“I could not have imagined it would be a massive blaze like that,” he said. The flames overwhelmed the second floor isolation hall of the hospital within three to four minutes of the oxygen cylinder exploding, he said. “Volcanoes of fire.”

Widespread negligence on the part of health officials is to blame for the deadly fire, Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said on Sunday. Following a special cabinet meeting to discuss the incident, the government suspended key officials, including the health minister and the governor of Baghdad province. Other officials, including the director of the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, were withdrawn from their posts.

It took firefighters and civil defense teams until the early hours of Sunday to put out the flames.

By midday Sunday, relatives were still searching anxiously for unaccounted loved ones.

“Please, two of my relatives are missing. ... I am going to die (without news about them),” posted a young woman on social media after a fruitless search for her family members. “I hope someone can help us find Sadi Abdul Kareem and Samir Abdul Kareem, they were in the ICU.”

Rokya Kareem, 30, was looking frantically for her friend Riyam Rahman, a pharmacist, who was visiting her mother at the hospital. Riyam’s mother, Basima, was admitted to Ibh al-Khatib 45 days ago due to complications from COVID-19.

“All we know is they were in the room next to where the fire started,” he said. “Her phone is switched off and her family has gone to every hospital trying to find them.”

The fire came as Iraq grapples with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among a total of at least 100,000 confirmed cases.

Hours after the fire broke out, the prime minister convened a special cabinet session. The cabinet suspended the health minister, Hasan al-Tamimi, and ordered an investigation of him and key hospital officials responsible for overseeing safety measures. The cabinet also suspended Baghdad’s governor over the incident.

The cabinet fired the director-general of the Baghdad health department in the al-Rusafa area, where the hospital is located, as well as the hospital director and its director of engineering and maintenance, according to a statement from the Health Ministry and the prime minister’s office.

“Negligence in such matters is not a mistake, but a crime for which all negligent parties must bear responsibility,” Mr. al-Kadhimi said after a security meeting Sunday.

U.N. envoy to Iraq Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert expressed “shock and pain” over the incident in a statement and called for stronger protection measures in hospitals.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis, who concluded a historic trip to Iraq last month, remembered those who perished in the blaze. Addressing people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his customary Sunday noon appearance, Francis mentioned the news of the dead. “Let’s pray for them,’’ Francis said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press; it has been updated to reflect AP's correction of Rokya Kareem's first name and gender. Associated Press writer Abdulrahman Zeyad contributed to this report.

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