More than 80 people died Sunday when a fire ripped through a Baghdad hospital for Covid-19 patients, sparking outrage and the suspension of top officials overseeing Iraq’s crumbling health services.
The blaze at eastern Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital began when badly stored oxygen cylinders blew up, medics said.
Many of the victims were on respirators and were burned or suffocated in the resulting inferno.
“It took just three minutes for the fire to reach most floors” of the hospital, the fire service said.
The health ministry said 82 people were killed and 110 wounded, while the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said 28 of the victims were patients who had to be taken off ventilators to escape the flames.
The blaze tore across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were visiting patients in the intensive care unit, a medical source said.
Bakr Qazem, son of one the victims, said he was at the hospital when he felt “a strong explosion”.
“We saw a fire and were not able to save the patients,” he told AFP tearfully from Najaf, the Shiite holy city where he had taken his father’s body for burial.
Throughout the day, funeral processions filled the city, where the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiites are buried.
According to Iraq’s fire service, “the hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products”.
It added that firefighters had been late reaching the hospital, in the remote outskirts of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi – who is backed by the powerful Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr – as part of a probe also including the governor of Baghdad.
The fire triggered outrage on social media, with a widespread hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked.
The Hezbollah Brigades, one of Iraq’s most radical pro-Iran factions, on Sunday evening demanded that the government quit.
Kadhemi, in a tweet, urged Iraqis “to be united in solidarity and to refrain from playing politics with this national catastrophe”.
He has also declared three days of national mourning and put aside 10 million dinars (around US$6,900) for the family of each victim.
Parliament said it would devote its Monday session to the tragedy.
Witnesses said the evacuation of the hospital was slow and chaotic, with patients and their relatives crammed into stairwells as they scrambled for exits.
“It was the people (civilians) who got the wounded out,” Amir, 35, told AFP, saying he had narrowly saved his hospitalised brothers.
Decades of neglect
Iraq’s hospitals have been crippled by decades of conflict and poor investment, and lack everything from medicines to beds.
Many Iraqis blamed negligence and graft for the inferno.
“The tragedy at Ibn al-Khatib is the result of years of erosion of state institutions by corruption and mismanagement,” President Barham Saleh tweeted.
The Iraqi Human Rights Commission denounced a “crime against patients exhausted by Covid-19… Instead of being treated, (they) perished in flames.”
Witnesses and doctors told AFP many badly burned remains had yet to be identified.
On Sunday evening yet another blaze broke out – this time at a shopping centre in the central city of Kirkuk. No casualties were immediately reported.
Mounting virus cases
One of the victims of the hospital blaze, Ali Ibrahim, 52, had been treated for coronavirus at the Ibn al-Khatib facility and was buried by his family on Sunday nearby.
“He had spent 12 days in hospital and was due to be discharged on Saturday evening after recovering,” one of his relatives told AFP. “He was just waiting for the result of the last Covid-19 test.”
Kadhemi also suspended the head of the health department in eastern Baghdad, the hospital’s chief and its directors of security and maintenance.
The premier pledged to submit the results of the probe to the government within five days.
The UN’s top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, voiced “shock” at the tragedy and called “for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur”.
Pope Francis, who paid an historic visit to Iraq in early March, called for “prayers” for the fire’s victims.
On Wednesday, the number of detected Covid-19 cases in Iraq topped one million, the highest of any Arab state.
The health ministry has recorded more than 15,000 deaths since the pandemic broke out last year, from a population of 40 million.
Iraq launched its vaccination campaign last month and has received nearly 650,000 vaccine doses, the majority by donation or through the Covax scheme for less wealthy nations.
Around 300,000 people had received at least one dose as of Sunday, the ministry said.