Cairo Coptic church fire kills 41, including 15 children
A fire engulfed a crowded Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshippers, including at least 15 children.
Several trapped worshipers jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein Church in an attempt to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Choking, choking, all dead,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
Sixteen people were injured, including four police officers involved in the rescue effort.
The cause of the fire in the church in the popular district of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation reported an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
Weeping families waited outside for information about relatives who were inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage of the scene circulated online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building, which had two daycares.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to reach them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know who owns this son or who owns this daughter. Is it possible ?
A total of 15 children were killed in the blaze, according to Copts United, a news site focused on Christian news.
A list of casualties obtained by The Associated Press indicates that 20 bodies, including 10 children, were transported to the public hospital in Imbaba. Three were siblings, 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old child, he added. The church’s bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were transported to other hospitals.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt were among those killed.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church employee managed to get some children out of the church’s daycares.
“We went up and found people dead. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was growing and people wanted to jump from the upper floor,” Hanna said.
“We found the children”, some dead, some alive, he added.
The country’s health minister blamed smoke and a stampede as people tried to flee the blaze 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 Cairo’s most densely populated areas. Sunday is the first working day of the week and traffic jams clog the streets of Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.
Some relatives criticized what they said was a delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. “They came after people died. … They came after the church burned down,” shouted a woman standing in front of the burning church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar countered that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.
Fifteen fire engines were dispatched to the scene to douse the flames while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by telephone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the evolution of this tragic accident,” el-Sisi wrote on Facebook. “I have ordered all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this accident and its effects.”
Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from hospital while the others were still being treated.
The Home Office said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders discovered the fire started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short on the blaze, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church. He said most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
On Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they had successfully put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said surviving victims and families of the dead would receive payments as compensation and the government would rebuild the church.
In the late afternoon, coffins carrying the dead were transferred to ambulances for prayers ahead of burial at two churches in the nearby neighborhood of Waraq, as weeping women followed their way. Hundreds of mourners gathered in churches for the funeral, before taking the bodies away for burial in nearby cemeteries.
Egypt’s Christians make up around 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination from the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s blaze 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 at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24.