NASIRIYAH, Iraq—The death toll from a fire that swept through a hospital coronavirus ward in Iraq climbed to 92 on Tuesday.
Health officials said scores of others were injured in the blaze that erupted Monday at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in Nasiriyah.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi convened an emergency meeting and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar provice, the hospital director and the city’s civil defense chief. The government also launched an investigation.
The prime minister called the catastrophe “a deep wound in the consciousness of all Iraqis.”
Authorities at one point said the fire was caused by a short circuit. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials were not authorized to talk to the news media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In April, at least 82 people—many of them coronavirus patients or their relatives—were killed in a fire at a Baghdad hospital that broke out when an oxygen tank exploded. Iraq’s health minister resigned over the disaster.
In Najaf city, the dead from Nasiriyah were laid to rest. Mourning families stood over the coffins at a mosque to say one last prayer.
Their tears were tinged with anger, with some saying the disaster could have been prevented. They blamed both the provincial government and the central government in Baghdad.
Ahmed Resan, who witnessed the blaze, said it began with smoke. “But everyone ran away—the workers and even the police. A few minutes later there was an explosion,” he said. He said firefighters arrived an hour later.
“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” Haidar al-Askari seethed at the scene.
Overnight, firefighters and rescuers—many holding flashlights and using blankets to smother small fires—searched through the ward. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets could be seen laid out on the ground outside the hospital. Distraught relatives searched for traces of their loved ones amid charred blankets and belongings.
Ali Khalid, 20, a volunteer who dashed to the scene, said he found the bodies of two young girls locked in an embrace.
“How terrified they must have been, they died hugging each other,” he said.
The ward, opened three months ago, contained 70 beds in three large halls. Maj. Gen. Khalid Bohan, head of Iraq’s civil defense, said the building was constructed from cheap, flammable materials.
Ali Karar, a cleaner at the hospital, said the ward had only four fire extinguishers and no fire alarm system. Firetrucks ran out of water quickly, he said.
Doctors have long complained of lax safety at Iraq’s hospitals, especially around oxygen cylinders, and have described the institutions as ticking bombs.
Iraq is in the midst of another severe COVID-19 surge. New cases per day peaked last week at 9,000. Iraq’s war-crippled health system has struggled to contain the virus. The country has recorded over 17,000 deaths and 1.4 million confirmed cases.
By Abdulrahman Zeyad and Samya Kullab