At least 114 people have died after a raging fire tore through a wedding hall packed with guests in Iraq, with fears the bride and groom are among the victims.
The blaze was caused by fireworks set off to celebrate a Christian wedding at a hall in the Al-Hamdaniya district of the northern Nineveh province, part of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. It is a predominantly Christian area just outside the city of Mosul, located 335km northwest of capital Baghdad.
“All efforts are being made to provide relief to those affected by the unfortunate accident,” health ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr told the state-run Iraqi News Agency.
Television footage showed flames spreading over the wedding hall as the fire took hold. In the blaze’s aftermath, only charred metal and debris could be seen as people walked through the scene of the fire, the only light coming from television cameras and the lights of onlookers’ mobile phones.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals, received oxygen and were bandaged. Their families milled through hallways and outside as workers organised more oxygen cylinders.
Some 150 people were killed in the fire, the Nineveh health department told the Associated Press.
Nineveh’s deputy health chief Ahmed Dubardani said the couple were among those killed. However, there are conflicting reports as some guests claimed they survived by escaping through the kitchen.
“They were about to do a slow dance and then they lit up this thing for the dance which caught fire,” one injured woman was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Another man injured in the fire at the hospital similarly told Rudaw that the blaze started as the couple prepared for their slow dance.
“They lit up fireworks,” he said. “It hit the ceiling, which caught fire.”
He added: “The entire hall was on fire in seconds.”
Mr al-Badr put the number of injured at 150 via the state-run Iraqi News Agency. “All efforts are being made to provide relief to those affected by the unfortunate accident,” he said.
Apparent security footage shared on social media by local broadcaster AVA Media appears to show flaming debris falling on guests inside the hall.
Prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s interior and health ministry officials to provide relief, his office said in a statement online.
Najim al-Jubouri, the provincial governor of Nineveh, said some of the injured had been transferred to regional hospitals. He cautioned there were no final casualty figures yet from the blaze, which suggests the death toll still may rise.
Photos and videos from local media show the tangled wreckage of a building and firefighters making their way through the rubble.
Eyewitnesses at the site said the building caught fire at around 10.45pm local time and that hundreds of people were in attendance at the time of the incident.
“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck. Even those who made their way out were broken,” said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.
ساتی ئاگرکەوتنەوەکەی حەمدانییە؛ بە فەرمانی سەرۆکوەزیران بارزانی، بریندارانی رووداوەکەی حەمدانییەی سەر بە پارێزگای موسڵ لە هەولێر چارەسەردەکرێن.
لە رووداوەکە 10 کەس گیانیان لەدەستداوە و نزیکەی 30 بریندارن pic.twitter.com/lHUDeNyPeU
— AVA Media (@AvaMediaInfo) September 26, 2023
Thousands of people visited local hospitals in the Hamdaniyah area throughout the early morning hours to donate blood after the tragedy.
There is no immediate official word yet on the cause of the blaze, but initial reports by Kurdish television news channel Rudaw suggested fireworks at the venue may have sparked the fire.
Civil defence officials quoted by the Iraqi news agency described the wedding hall’s exterior as being decorated with highly flammable 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 fire breaks out,” an official with the local civil defence directorate said.
— Steve Lookner (@lookner) September 26, 2023
It wasn’t immediately clear why authorities in Iraq allowed the cladding to be used on the hall, though corruption and mismanagement remains endemic two decades after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
While some types of cladding can be made with fire-resistant material, experts say those that have caught fire at the wedding hall and elsewhere weren’t designed to meet stricter safety standards and were often put onto buildings without any breaks to slow or halt a possible blaze.
That includes the 2017 Grenfell Fire in London that killed 72 people in the greatest loss of life in a fire on British soil since the Second World War, as well as multiple high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates.
The fire was the latest disaster to strike Iraq’s shrinking Christian minority, which over the past two decades has been violently targeted by extremists first from the al-Qaida and then the Isis militant group.
Although the Nineveh plains, their historic homeland, was wrested back from Isis six years ago, some towns are still mostly rubble and lack basic services. Many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the US. The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated to be at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total population is more than 40 million.
Meanwhile, in a separate incident, a small fire led to guests and diplomatic personnel being evacuated from Baghdad’s Al-Rasheed hotel. It has been brought under control, an official at the hotel told Reuters via phone early on Wednesday.
The hotel houses several envoys from Gulf states.
The small fire occurred in kitchen, and an official described the evacuation as a routine precautionary measure, saying guests had safely returned to their rooms.
The hotel is in Iraq’s highly fortified Green Zone which hosts parliament, many government buildings and foreign embassies.
Additional reporting by agencies