The death toll from a fire that tore through a coronavirus ward at a hospital in southern Iraq has risen to 92, health officials have said, as grieving relatives slammed the government over the second such disaster within three months.
Officials said more than 100 people were injured in the blaze at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital on Monday night in Nasiriya, highlighting the crippled healthcare system in the country amid decades of war and sanctions.
An investigation showed the fire began when sparks from faulty wiring spread to an oxygen tank that then exploded, police and civil defence authorities said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi convened an emergency meeting and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar province, the hospital director and the city’s civil defence chief. The government also launched a time-bound investigation.
Al-Kadhimi called the tragedy “a deep wound in the consciousness of all Iraqis”. A statement from his office called for national mourning.
In a tweet on Tuesday, President Barham Salih blamed the “catastrophe” at the hospital on “persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis”.
A Nasiriya court said it had ordered the arrest of 13 local officials in connection with the fire.
Mismanagement and neglect
Anguished relatives were still looking for traces of their loved ones on Tuesday morning, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. A blackened skull of a deceased female patient from the ward was found.
The blaze trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward who rescue teams struggled to reach, a health worker told Reuters on Monday before entering the burning building.
Rescue teams were using a heavy crane to remove the charred and melted remains of the part of the hospital where COVID-19 patients were being treated, as relatives gathered nearby.
Many cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriya is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.
“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze.
Mohammed Fadhil, waiting to receive his bother’s body, said it was a disaster. “No quick response to the fire, not enough firefighters. Sick people burned to death. It’s a disaster,” he said.
DNA tests to identify bodies
While some bodies were collected for burial, with mourners weeping and praying over the coffins, the remains of more than 20 badly charred corpses required DNA tests to identify them.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Nasiriya, said that forensic teams have identified around 39 bodies, while dozens others are still under a “recognition process”.
“We met victims’ families here who cannot find their loved ones. Dozens of body parts cannot be easily identified,” Abdelwahed said.
“Another man we met lost five of his family members – three [were] COVID-19 patients and the others were either visitors or those who rushed to try to save their relatives.”
In April, a similar explosion at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital killed at least 82 and injured 110.
Iraq has registered more than 1.4 million cases of the coronavirus and upwards of 17,000 deaths as daily infections spike.
The head of Iraq’s semi-official Human Rights Commission said Monday’s blast showed how ineffective safety measures still were in the health system.
“To have such a tragic incident repeated few months later means that still no [sufficient] measures have been taken to prevent them,” Ali al-Bayati said.
The fact that the hospital had been built with lightweight panels separating the wards had made the fire spread faster, local civil defence authority head Salah Jabbar said.
A medic at the hospital, who declined to give his name and whose shift ended a few hours before the fire broke out, said the absence of basic safety measures meant it was an accident in the making.
“The hospital lacks a fire sprinkler system or even a simple fire alarm,” he told Reuters.
“We complained many times over the past three months that a tragedy could happen any moment from a cigarette stub, but every time we get the same answer from health officials: ‘We don’t have enough money’.”