Fire guts COVID ward, killing at least 64 in Iraqi hospital

A fire tore through the COVID-19 ward of a hospital in southern Iraq killing at least 64 people, officials said on Tuesday. The Iraqi Health Authority said the Monday night blaze in the Al Hussain Educational Hospital, in the city of Nasiriyah about 160 miles south of Baghdad, left more than 50 others injured.

Funeral of al-Hussain coronavirus hospital victims, in Najaf
Mourners react next to the coffins of people killed in a fire that broke out at al-Hussain hospital in Nassiriya, Iraq, during a funeral in Najaf, July 13, 2021. ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS

Officials said the fire was sparked by the explosion of an oxygen canister at the entrance of the temporary coronavirus ward. The flames spread quickly and blocked the entrance, leaving many patients and their family members trapped inside.

The health authority said two medical workers and one guard were among the victims.

In a statement, Ammar al-Zamili, spokesman for the province’s health directorate, said the fire was “caused by the failure to properly handle oxygen bottles.”  

As anger mounted over the disaster, with protesters taking to the streets, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi fired the heads of the national health department, the fire control department in the province where the hospital is located, and the manager of the hospital. He also called for an immediate investigation into the deadly fire.

Fire at al-Hussain coronavirus hospital in Nassiriya, Iraq
People inspect the damage at al-Hussain hospital in Nasiriyah, Iraq, after it was ravaged in a fire, July 13, 2021. KHALID AL-MOUSILY/REUTERS

It was the second time an Iraqi hospital has seen a similar, fatal mishap this year. In April, an oxygen cylinder exploded at the coronavirus ward of Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital, killing 82 people and leaving another 130 wounded.  

In a tweet, President Barham Salih said both the April fire and the one on Tuesday were the products of “persistent corruption and mismanagement,” and he said those responsible for the negligence must be held accountable.  

As family members gathered around the hospital in Nasiriyah on Tuesday morning, looking for missing relatives, grief increasingly mixed with anger.

Sameer Nasser, 23, was inside the hospital keeping his father company. Nasser told CBS News that smoke quickly filled the ward, cutting off the entrance, and they found the back gate closed.

“We broke the window and jumped outside, but for many patients, it was too far and difficult to reach the window and jump,” he said. “People were terrified, screaming, and could do nothing to help themselves, and there was no one to help them. Many died there, including my father.” 

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People take images of the flames as a massive fire engulfs the coronavirus isolation ward at Al-Hussein hospital, in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, late on July 12, 2021. ASAAD NIAZI/AFP/Getty

Nasser blamed the government for his loss, accusing leaders of both negligence and corruption, and he also lambasted the response by security forces as they sought to quell the angry demonstrations that erupted on Tuesday. 

Iraq has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the region, and a very low vaccination rate.

With a population of roughly 40 million, Iraq has confirmed 1,438,511 cases and more than 17,590 deaths. Only 1.1 million people have had at least a first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine — less than 3% of the overall population.