Nasiriyah, Iraq: A fire that enveloped a Covid isolation unit in southern Iraq killed 64 people, a medical source told AFP in an updated toll on Tuesday.
“Sixty-four (bodies) were retrieved and 39 identified and handed over to their families,” the source at the Dhi Qar Forensic Science Department said.
Late Monday, a fire broke out inside the Al-Hussein hospital in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, and was quickly put out by local civil defense services.
“The main reason for the fire… was the explosion of oxygen tanks,” a medical source with the health directorate told AFP.
The local health authority’s spokesperson, Haydar al-Zamili, said early Tuesday that 52 bodies had been recovered and another 22 people had been injured in the latest toll after the fire “swept through the Covid isolation ward.”
“Medical teams and relatives of victims are finding it difficult to identify the rest of the corpses,” the source said, adding that the death toll might rise further with more bodies feared buried under the rubble.
“The victims died of burns and the search is continuing,” he added, noting that there were fears people could still be trapped inside the building.
There were 70 beds in the unit.
The devastating hospital fire is the country’s second in three months.
Dozens of adolescent protesters gathered outside the hospital.
They said in unison, “The (political) parties have burned us!”
The incident sparked outrage on social media, with many calling for high officials to quit.
The governorate of Dhi Qar, whose capital is Nasiriyah, declared a state of emergency and ordered doctors on leave to assist in the treatment of the injured.
‘Failure to safeguard lives’
According to his office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi convened an emergency meeting with ministers and security officials to “determine the reasons” of the fire.
Police detained and questioned Dhi Qar’s health chief and the hospital’s head, according to his office.
In addition, Kadhemi despatched emergency medical assistance to the governorate’s southern region.
“The catastrophe of Al-Hussein Hospital is clear proof of the failure to protect the lives of Iraqis, and it is time to put an end to this,” Mohamed al-Halbousi, Iraq’s Parliament Speaker, wrote on Twitter.
The fire tore through temporary structures placed close to the main building, according to Iraq’s interior ministry, which did not specify the cause on Facebook.
Thick clouds of smoke billowed from the Al Hussein hospital in videos uploaded online.
A fire at Baghdad’s Covid-19 hospital in April killed 82 people and injured 110 more. The fire was started by the explosion of improperly kept oxygen cylinders.
Many of the victims of the April fire were on respirators and were burned or smothered in the ensuing blaze, which quickly spread across the hospital and killed scores of relatives who were visiting patients in the intensive care unit.
The April fire sparked significant outrage, prompting Hassan al-Tamimi, the then-health minister, to be suspended and ultimately resign.
Over 1.4 million coronavirus cases and over 17,000 deaths have been reported in Iraq, where the oil-dependent economy is still recovering from decades of conflict and insurgency and where many people live in poverty.
Much of the country’s health infrastructure is in disrepair, and pervasive corruption prevents investment in public services.
Iraqi health officials have fully vaccinated only around 1% of the country’s roughly 40 million citizens since the coronavirus vaccination rollout began in March.
A little fire broke out inside the health ministry’s offices in Baghdad earlier on Monday, but it was promptly put out with no fatalities.
Perpetrators must be held to account
Outside the hospital, dozens of young demonstrators protested.
“The perpetrators must be deterred… The state must take the necessary measures… to confront the corrupt,” a young protester told AFP early Tuesday.
He said those responsible must be held “accountable… in transparent investigations that show people that it (the state) is serious about putting an end to these tragedies,” he added.
In a Tuesday tweet, Iraqi President Barham Salih blamed the “catastrophe” at Al-Hussein Hospital on “persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis”.
Salih recalled an April fire at a Baghdad Covid-19 hospital that killed 82 people and injured 110. It too was sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders.
The April fire triggered widespread anger, resulting in the suspension and subsequent resignation of then health minister Hassan al-Tamimi.
Iraq — whose oil-dependent economy is still recovering from decades of war and international sanctions — has recorded more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 17,000 deaths.
Much of the country’s health infrastructure is dilapidated and investment in public services is hamstrung by endemic corruption.