At least 92 people were killed and over 100 injured in a fire at a coronavirus hospital in Iraq's southern city of Nassiriya, Iraq's state news agency reported Tuesday, raising the death toll significantly since the fire broke out the day before. Anguished relatives buried their loved ones and lashed out at the government over the country's second such disaster in less than three months.
The fire broke out at the al-Hussein Hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya late Monday and was brought under control by local civil defense forces. A medical source with the health directorate told Agence France-Presse (AFP) the "main reason behind the fire ... was the explosion of oxygen tanks."
Haydar al-Zamili, the local health authority's spokesperson, said early Tuesday 52 bodies were retrieved after the fire had "ripped through the COVID isolation ward."
"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. The ward had space for 70 beds.
"Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke," a Reuters reporter at the site of the fire site said.
State-run Iraq News Agency cited health ministry officials as saying that search operations at the hospital were continuing after the fire was brought under control.
"Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them," a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank explosion inside the hospital's COVID-19 ward was the likely cause of the fire, a police officer at the scene of the fire said.
Health sources said the death toll could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were among the dead, they said.
In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad took at least 82 lives and injured 110 others. Many of the victims in the April fire were on respirators and were burned or suffocated in the resulting inferno that spread rapidly through the hospital, where dozens of relatives were visiting patients in the intensive care unit. The April fire led to widespread anger, resulting in the suspension and subsequent resignation of then health minister Hassan al-Tamimi.
Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq's health care system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed 17,592 people and infected more than 1.438 million.
The deadly hospital blaze is the second such fire in Iraq in three months. Outside the hospital, dozens of young demonstrators protested.
"The (political) parties have burned us," they shouted in unison.
The fire also prompted furious calls on social media for the resignation of top officials. Local authorities imposed a state of emergency in Dhi Qar governorate, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, and ordered doctors on leave to help treat the injured.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi held an emergency meeting with ministers and security heads to "find out the causes" of the fire, his office tweeted Tuesday.
Dhi Qar's health chief and the hospital's head were detained and questioned by police, his office said. Al-Kadhemi also dispatched emergency medical aid to the southern governorate.
"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.
Iraq's interior ministry said on Facebook that the fire tore through temporary structures erected next to the main building, but did not specify the cause. Videos shared online showed thick clouds of smoke billowing from the hospital.
Earlier on Monday, a minor fire broke out at the health ministry's headquarters in Baghdad, but it was quickly contained with no fatalities recorded.
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