KARO — A fire tore through a packed Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 15 children.
Several trapped congregants jumped from the top floors of Martyr Abu Sefein Church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Suffocation, suffocation, 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.
The cause of the fire at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation indicated an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
Crying families waited outside for news of relatives at church and nearby hospitals where the victims were being taken. Images of the scene circulating online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters extinguished the fire while others carried victims to ambulances.
Witnesses said there were many children in the four-storey building, which had two nurseries.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”
According to Copts United, a news website that focuses on Christian news, a total of 15 children were killed in the fire.
According to a list of victims obtained by The Associated Press, 20 bodies, including 10 children, have been taken to Imbaba Public Hospital. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among those killed in the hospital’s morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that the dead included 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church employee managed to get some children out of church daycare.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people want to jump from the top floor,” Hanna said.
“We found the children,” some dead, some alive, he added.
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and stampede as people tried to flee the fire causing the fatalities. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
The church stands in a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most populous neighborhoods. Sunday is the first working day of the week and in the morning traffic jams clog the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas.
Some family members criticized what they believed were delays in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. “They came after people died. … They came after the church burned down,” shouted a woman standing outside the smoldering church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar replied that the first ambulance arrived two minutes after the fire was reported.
Fifteen fire vehicles were sent to the scene to extinguish the flames, while ambulances took victims to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to express his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also expressed his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi wrote on Facebook. “I have instructed all relevant government agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and to address this accident and its consequences immediately.”
Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the injured were released from hospital while the others were still being treated.
The interior ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9:00 a.m. local time, and first responders found the fire had broken out in an air conditioner on the building’s second floor.
The ministry, which oversees police and fire services, blames an electrical short circuit on the fire, which sparked massive amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was sent to the church. He said most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
On Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they had managed to put out the blaze 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.
By late afternoon, coffins of the dead were transferred into ambulances for pre-funeral prayers at two churches in the nearby Waraq district, as weeping women lined their path. Hundreds of mourners gathered at the churches for the funerals, before taking the bodies to nearby cemeteries.
The Christians in Egypt make up about 10% of the country’s more than 103 million inhabitants and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fires in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly adhered to. In March last year, a fire at a clothing factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24.
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