Asaad Niazi / AFP via Getty Images
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A fire that broke out in a coronavirus ward at a hospital in southern Iraq has killed at least 64 people and injured dozens, health officials said on Tuesday.
The blaze on Monday engulfed the outbuildings of the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiryah, which was set up to isolate COVID-19 patients. Patients remained trapped inside, and rescue teams struggled to reach them in time.
Photos from the scene show observers wiped by the flames that engulfed the buildings and illuminated the night sky. Later, pictures showed rescue workers sorting through the charred remains of bodies and hospital beds on the ward.
Officials told the Associated Press that the fire may have caused an electrical short circuit, but did not provide more details. Another health official in Dhi Qar province, where Nasiriyah is located, said the fire broke out when an oxygen bottle exploded.
This is the second time the fire has spread to the coronavirus department at a hospital in Iraq. At least 82 people died in April at Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad after a fire caused by a faulty oxygen tank.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered a full investigation into the cause of this latest fire in Nasiriyah. He also ordered the suspension and arrest of health directors of Dhi Qar Province and al-Hussein Hospital, as well as the city’s director of civil defense.
Already devastated by decades of war, sanctions, mismanagement and corruption, the pandemic has further crippled Iraq’s health care system, with an acute shortage of staff and medical equipment. COVID-19 killed nearly 17,600 people and infected more than 1.4 million in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing of innocent patients. Where is my father’s body,” one young man told Reuters as he searched among the charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital yard.
In anger and frustration, relatives of the dead and injured clashed with police in front of al-Hussein Hospital, setting fire to two vehicles.