A fire broke out in a crowded Coptic Orthodox church during morning prayers in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 15 children.
Witnesses said that many of the trapped worshipers jumped from the upper floors of the Church of the Martyr Abu Sefein in an attempt to escape the intense flames. “Suffocation, suffocation, they all died,” said a stunned witness, only mentioning a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen who participated in the rescue efforts.
It was not immediately known what caused the fire to break out in the church located in the Imbaba neighborhood, which is inhabited by the working class. A preliminary investigation indicated a short circuit, according to a police statement.
Weeping families waited outside for news of relatives who were inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage of the scene circulating online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the flames, while others took the victims to ambulances.
Witnesses said there were several children inside the four-story building, which had two daycare centers.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to reach them,” said Abu Bishoy. We do not know this son or daughter. Is this possible?”
Fifteen children were killed in the fire, according to Copts United, a news website focused on Christian news.
A list of victims obtained by the Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to Imbaba General Hospital. She added that she has three siblings, twins aged 5 and 3. The bishop of the church, Abdel Masih Bakhit, was among the dead in the hospital mortuary.
Twenty-one bodies were transferred to other hospitals.
Musa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that five-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother, and aunt were among the dead.
Witness Imad Hanna said that a church worker managed to get some children out of the church’s nurseries.
“We went upstairs and found dead people. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was increasing, and people wanted to jump from the top floor,” Hanna said.
“We found the children,” he added, some dead and some alive.
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and the stampede as people tried to flee the blazes for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week, and traffic jams block the streets of Imbama and its surroundings in the morning.
Some relatives criticized what they said was the delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. They came after people died. “…they came after the church was on fire,” shouted a woman standing outside the burning church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar responded that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.
Officials said 15 fire engines were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames, while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, according to the presidential office. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Imam of Al-Azhar, also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic incident,” Sisi wrote on Facebook. I directed all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this incident and its effects.
Health Minister Abdel Ghaffar said in a statement that two of the injured have been discharged from the hospital, while the others are still receiving treatment.
The Ministry of Interior said it received a report of the fire at 9 am local time, and paramedics found that the fire broke out in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed a short circuit for the fire, which sent huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s public prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors has been sent to the church. He said most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
By Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they had managed to put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials had arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said the surviving victims and families of the dead would receive compensation and that the government would rebuild the church.
By late afternoon, coffins carrying the dead were taken into ambulances for pre-burial prayers at two churches in the nearby neighborhood of Warraq, where weeping women lined up on their way. Hundreds of mourners gathered at churches for funerals before the bodies were taken for burial in nearby cemeteries.
Christians in Egypt make up about 10% of the country’s population of 103 million and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
The Sunday fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire in a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.
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