Massive Blaze in ICU of Coronavirus Ward in Iraq Kills 82

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The death toll from a massive fire in a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients rose to 82 Sunday, as anxious relatives searched for those missing and the government suspended key health officials for alleged negligence.

The blaze, described by one witness as "volcanoes of fire," swept through the intensive care unit of the Ibn al-Khatib hospital which tends exclusively to coronavirus patients with severe symptoms. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

Maher Ahmed, a nurse, was called at 9:45 p.m. Saturday night, to come to the scene and help evacuate patients.

"I could not have imagined it would be a massive blaze like that," he said. "The flames overwhelmed the second floor isolation hall of the hospital within three to four minutes of the oxygen cylinder exploding, he said. "Volcanoes of fire."

Most of those killed suffered severe burns, he said. Others were overcome by smoke inhalation, unwilling to leave behind their coronavirus-afflicted relatives hooked up to ventilators. Ahmed said these patients could not be moved. "They would have minutes to live without oxygen."

He said he and others watched helplessly as one patient struggled to breathe, overwhelmed by smoke.

"Everyone has some responsibility for this incident. From regular citizens to (officials) at the top of the pyramid," he said.

Widespread negligence on the part of health officials is to blame for the deadly fire, Iraq's prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said on Sunday. Following a special cabinet meeting to discuss the incident, the government suspended key officials, including the health minister and the governor of Baghdad province. Other officials, including the director of the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, were withdrawn from their posts.

It took firefighters and civil defense teams until the early hours of Sunday to put out the flames.

Among the dead were at least 28 patients on ventilators battling severe symptoms of the virus, tweeted Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman of the country's independent Human Rights Commission, a semi-official body.

Paramedics carried the bodies, many burned beyond recognition, to al-Zafaraniya Hospital, where Ahmed said forensics teams will attempt to identify them by matching DNA samples to relatives.

By midday Sunday, relatives were still searching anxiously for unaccounted loved ones.

"Please, two of my relatives are missing. ... I am going to die (without news about them)," posted a young woman on social media after a fruitless search for her family members. "I hope someone can help us find Sadi Abdul Kareem and Samir Abdul Kareem, they were in the ICU."

Roky Kareem, 30, was looking frantically for his friend Riyam Rahman, a pharmacist, who was visiting her mother at the hospital. Riyam's mother, Basima was admitted to Ibh al-Khatib 45 days ago due to complications from COVID-19.

"All we know is they were in the room next to where the fire started," he said. "Her phone is switched off and her family has gone to every hospital trying to find them."

The fire came as Iraq grapples with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among a total of at least 100,000 confirmed cases.

Hours after the fire broke out, the prime minister convened a special cabinet session. The cabinet suspended the health minister, Hasan al-Tamimi, and ordered an investigation of him and key hospital officials responsible for overseeing safety measures. The cabinet also suspended Baghdad's governor over the incident.

The cabinet fired the director-general of the Baghdad health department in the al-Rusafa area, where the hospital is located, as well as the hospital director and its director of engineering and maintenance, according to a statement from the Health Ministry and the prime minister's office.

"Negligence in such matters is not a mistake, but a crime for which all negligent parties must bear responsibility," al-Kadhimi said after a security meeting Sunday.

U.N. envoy to Iraq Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert expressed "shock and pain" over the incident in a statement and called for stronger protection measures in hospitals.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis, who concluded a historic trip to Iraq last month, remembered those who perished in the blaze. Addressing people gathered in St. Peter's Square for his customary Sunday noon appearance, Francis mentioned the news of the dead. "Let's pray for them,'' Francis said.