At least 44 people have been killed and over 67 injured in a fire likely caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a coronavirus hospital in Iraq’s southern city of Nasiriya, health officials and police said on Monday.
As rescuers combed the smoke-charred building in search of more bodies, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi held urgent meetings with senior ministers and ordered the suspension and arrest of health and civil defence managers in Nassiriya, his office said in a statement.
The manager of the hospital was also suspended and ordered to be arrested, the statement added.
Health official Haydar al-Zamili told reporters that there are fears people are still trapped inside the ward, which reportedly has beds for 60 patients.
“Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke,” a Reuters reporter at the site of the fire said.
Authorities in Nasiriya said search operations at the Al Hussain coronavirus hospital were continuing after the fire was brought under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the burnt wards.
“Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them,” a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
“I heard a big explosion inside the coronavirus wards and then fire had erupted very quickly,” said Ali Muhsin, a hospital guard who was helping carrying wounded patients away from fires.
In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a Covid-19 hospital in Baghdad killed at least 82 people and injured 110 others. Health minister Hassan al-Tamimi resigned after that fire.
Health sources said earlier the death toll from Monday’s fire could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were among the dead, they said.
Protesters demonstrated outside the hospital after the fire, and people posted on social media demanding the resignation of officials.
Angry relatives gathered in front of the hospital and clashed with police, setting fire to two police vehicles, a Reuters witness said.
“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father’s body,” said one young man as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital’s yard.
The coronavirus pandemic has severely strained Iraq’s health service, already suffering from years of war, neglect and corruption.
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi tweeted that the blaze was “clear proof of the failure to protect Iraqi lives, and it is time to put an end to this catastrophic failure”.
Iraq has recorded 1.4 million infections and reported more than 17,000 deaths from coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The country has given at least one dose of vaccine against Covid to just over one million of its roughly 40 million citizens, the World Health Organization says.