MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — A raging fire apparently caused by fireworks set off at a Christian wedding ripped through a hall packed with guests in northern Iraq, killing about 100 people and injuring 150 others, authorities warned Wednesday that the death toll could still rise.
Authorities said flammable building materials also contributed to the recent disaster in Iraq dwindling Christian minority. In the chaotic aftermath of the fire, officials gave conflicting death tolls and security officials said they had detained staff at the wedding hall as part of their investigation.
According to authorities, the fire occurred in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province. This is a predominantly Christian area just outside the city of Mosul, about 335 kilometers (205 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
There was no official word on the cause of the fire, but Kurdish television news channel Rudaw aired footage showing pyrotechnicians shooting flames from the floor of the event and setting a chandelier on fire.
Several witnesses, including 50-year-old wedding attendee Faten Youssef, said the fire broke out as the bride and groom began their slow dance. The flames ripped through plastic decorations and the ceiling began to collapse, she said.
“Flames fell on us,” Youssef told The Associated Press. “Things were falling and blocking the way to the exit.”
She said her family found their way through a kitchen after fighting through smoke and flames and her son was unable to get through a blocked exit door. Outside, a video taken by a passerby showed a desperate attempt to help those trapped inside, with a man trying to break through a wall with an excavator.
It was not immediately clear whether the bride and groom were among the injured.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages and received oxygen while their families strolled the halls and outside as workers organized more oxygen tanks. There were also children among those burned. Ambulance sirens wailed for hours after the fire as paramedics pulled out the injured.
Extravagant wedding ceremonies are common in Iraq, as in many countries in the Middle East. Families often invite hundreds of relatives and members of the wider community and spend heavily on spectacular ceremonies with lavishly decorated halls, music and entertainers, often including pyrotechnics.
The death toll fluctuated in the hours after the incident, which is common practice in Iraq.
An initial statement from the Health Ministry, carried by Iraq’s state news agency, said over 100 people were killed and 150 injured in the fire. Health officials in Nineveh province put the death toll at 114, while Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari later estimated the death toll was 93.
A health ministry official, who spoke to the AP midday Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said 30 bodies had been identified by their relatives but the rest were so badly burned that DNA identification was required.
He put the death toll at 94 and around 100 people were still receiving medical treatment. “The death toll is expected to rise as some are in critical condition,” he said.
Ahmed Dubardani, a provincial health official, told Rudaw that many of the injured suffered severe burns.
“Most of them were completely burned and some others had 50 to 60% of their bodies burned,” Dubardani said.
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the wedding, said: “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. The total population of Iraq is more than 40 million.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been violently attacked by extremists, first from al-Qaeda and then from the Islamic State militant group. Although the Nineveh Plains, their historic homeland, were wrested from the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns still lie largely in ruins and lack basic services, and many Christians have emigrated to Europe, Australia or the United States .
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and sought help from the country’s interior and health authorities, his office said in an online statement.
Located in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, Hamdaniya is under the control of its central government but is close to and claimed by Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, ordered hospitals to be set up there to help those injured in the fire.
The United Nations Mission in Iraq also expressed its condolences over the fire, describing its staff as “shocked and hurt by the enormous loss of life and injuries” caused by the fire.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said the initial forensic report described a “lack of security measures” at the venue. Iraqi security forces arrested nine workers at the venue as part of their investigation, said Abdullah Al-Jabouri, a security official who heads the Nineveh task force.
One of the venue’s owners, Chonny Suleiman Naboo, told the AP that the fire was caused by an “electrical fault in the ceiling.” He insisted that the venue had “all permissions from the officials” and that his brother and the hall supervisor would turn themselves into authorities.
“We were attacked by residents and our cars were damaged due to the incident, and we fear that our homes may also be attacked,” Naboo said.
Civil defense officials quoted by the Iraqi News Agency described the exterior of the wedding hall as being decorated with a highly flammable type of “sandwich panel” paneling that is illegal in the country.
“The fire led to parts of the hall collapsing due to the use of highly flammable, inexpensive building materials, which collapsed within minutes if the fire broke out,” the civil defense said.
Experts say cheaper sandwich panels don’t always meet stricter safety standards and are particularly dangerous in buildings without breaks to slow or stop a potential fire. This contains the 2017 Grenfell fire in London, in which 72 people died to suffer the largest and multiple loss of life in a fire on British soil since the Second World War High-rise building fires in the United Arab Emirates.
Similar panels have been blamed for several previous fires in Iraq. In July 2021, A fire at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah The fuel was found to be sandwich panels. According to contradictory statements from officials at the time, between 60 and 92 people were killed.