The death toll from a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients has risen to at least 82 as anxious families searched for missing relatives.
The flames, described by one witness as “volcanoes of fire,” swept through the intensive care unit of the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, which tends exclusively to COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.
Widespread negligence on the part of health officials is to blame for the fire, Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said Sunday. Following a special cabinet meeting to discuss the blaze, the government suspended key officials, including the health minister and the governor of Baghdad province. Other officials, including the hospital director, were dismissed from their posts.
It took firefighters and civil defense teams until early Sunday to put out the flames.
Among the dead were at least 28 patients on ventilators, tweeted Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman of the country’s independent Human Rights Commission, a semi-official body.
Paramedics carried the bodies, many burned beyond recognition, to al-Zafaraniya Hospital, where Ahmed said forensics teams will attempt to identify them by matching DNA samples to relatives.
By midday Sunday, relatives were still searching anxiously for 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. Rahman’s mother, Basima, was admitted to the hospital 45 days ago with complications from COVID-19.
“All we know is they were in the room next to where the fire started,” she said. “Her phone is switched off, and her family has gone to every hospital trying to find them.”
The fire happened as Iraq grapples with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest level since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among at least 100,000 confirmed cases.