At least 100 people died and more than 150 were injured when a fire erupted during a wedding in an event hall in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh early Wednesday.
At the town’s main hospital, located east of Mosul, an AFP photographer witnessed ambulances arriving and dozens of people in the courtyard donating blood.
Onlookers gathered in front of a refrigerated truck filled with black body bags.
Iraq’s official INA news agency, citing a preliminary count, said health officials in Nineveh province reported 100 deaths and over 150 injuries from the fire in a wedding hall in Hamdaniyah, another name for the town.
The death toll was confirmed by health ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr to AFP.
Badr said most of the injured suffered burns or oxygen deprivation. He added that there were also crowd crushes in the crowded hall.
The Iraqi Red Crescent recorded over 450 casualties but couldn’t specify how many were fatalities.
Civil defense authorities said the event hall had prefabricated panels that were highly flammable and didn’t meet safety standards. The risk increased with the release of toxic gases from the burning of these plastic-containing panels.
The fire caused parts of the ceiling to collapse due to the use of highly flammable, inexpensive construction materials, the statement read. Preliminary information suggests fireworks ignited the blaze. Footage shared on social media appears to show pyrotechnics being used inside the venue, which then spread to the ceiling.
Wedding guest Rania Waad, 17, who suffered a burn on her hand, recalled, “As the bride and groom were dancing, fireworks ignited, reaching the ceiling, and the entire hall was engulfed.”
“We couldn’t see anything,” Waad said, struggling to hold back tears. “We were suffocating and didn’t know how to escape.”
Early Wednesday, emergency personnel examined the charred remains of the event hall using flashlights.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani urged the health and interior ministers to “mobilize all rescue efforts” in response to the fire.
The health ministry dispatched medical aid trucks from Baghdad and other regions, with teams in Nineveh activated to assist the injured.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has dispatched rescue and medical personnel from across the Kurdistan Region to Qaraqosh. Many of the injured are being transferred to hospitals in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region.
KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani expressed his condolences on Twitter, “Our hearts go out to the families affected by the tragic fire in the Al-Hamdaniya district.” He further stated, “Upon learning of the tragedy, we immediately directed our Health Ministry and other relevant authorities to the accident site. We’re committed to offering any support necessary for the affected community.”
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Alina Romanowski, shared her sentiments, “Today, we stand side-by-side with all Iraqis in their grief for the victims and those injured at the wedding in the Hamdaniya tragedy.”
The U.S. Consulate General in Erbil released a statement: “The U.S. Consulate General Erbil expresses its sincere condolences to the victims of the fire and their families and loved ones, and commends KRG officials for supporting the response to this heartbreaking tragedy.”
Safety standards in Iraq’s construction industry frequently fall short. The nation, with an infrastructure weakened by years of conflict, recurrently witnesses deadly fires and accidents.
In July 2021, a fire in a southern Iraq hospital’s COVID-19 unit resulted in over 60 deaths.
In April 2021, a fire caused by exploding oxygen tanks at a COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad resulted in over 80 deaths.
Much like other Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains, northeast of Mosul, Qaraqosh suffered at the hands of Islamic State jihadists who invaded in 2014.
Following the group’s expulsion in 2017, Qaraqosh and its churches underwent reconstruction. Pope Francis visited the town in March 2021.