MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — A raging fire seemingly caused by fireworks set off to celebrate a Christian wedding consumed a hall packed with guests in northern Iraq, killing around 100 people and injuring 150 others as authorities warned Wednesday the death toll could still rise.
Authorities said that flammable building materials also contributed to the latest disaster to hit Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority. In the fire’s chaotic aftermath, officials offered conflicting death tolls and security officials said they had detained staff at the wedding hall as part of their investigation.
The fire happened in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province, authorities said. That’s a predominantly Christian area just outside of the city of Mosul, some 335 kilometres (205 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
There was no official word on the cause of the blaze, but the Kurdish television news channel Rudaw aired footage showing pyrotechnics shooting flames up from the floor of the event and setting a chandelier aflame.
Multiple witnesses, including 50-year-old wedding attendee Faten Youssef, said the fire started as the bride and groom began their slow dance. The flames raced through plastic decorations and the ceiling started collapsing, she said.
“Flames started falling on us,” Youssef told The Associated Press (AP). “Things were falling down and blocked the way to the exit.”
She said her family found their way out through a kitchen, after the family struggled through smoke and flames and her son failed to kick through a jammed exit door. Outside, video shot by a bystander showed a desperate effort to help those trapped inside, with one man trying to knock through a wall with an excavator.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the bride and groom were among those hurt.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages, receiving oxygen, as their families milled through hallways and outside as workers organised more oxygen cylinders. Some of those burned included children. Ambulance sirens wailed for hours after the fire as paramedics brought out the injured.
Extravagant wedding ceremonies are common in Iraq, like many countries in the Middle East. Families often invite hundreds of relatives and members of the broader community, spending heavily on spectacular ceremonies with elaborately decorated halls, music and entertainers, often including pyrotechnics.
Casualty figures fluctuated in the hours after the incident, which is common in Iraq.
An initial Health Ministry statement, carried by the state-run Iraqi News Agency, said the blaze killed over 100 people and injured 150. Health officials in Nineveh province put the death toll at 114, while Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari later put the death toll at 93.
A Health Ministry official, speaking to the AP at midday Wednesday on condition of anonymity as he did not have authorization to talk to journalists, said that 30 bodies have been identified by their relatives, but the rest are so badly burned that will require DNA identification.
He put the death toll at 94, with around 100 people still receiving medical treatment. “The death toll is expected to rise as some are in critical condition,” he said.
Ahmed Dubardani, a health official in the province, told Rudaw that many of those injured suffered serious burns.