A devastating fire that killed more than 100 people at a wedding in Iraq broke out as the bride and groom began their slow dance, injured witnesses said.
More than 150 people, including children, were injured, most with severe burns, in the wedding celebration disaster that struck Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority near the city of Mosul on Tuesday evening.
Nineveh health official Ahmed Dubardani said the majority of survivors suffered serious burn injuries and there were fears the death toll could rise above the latest figure of 114 given by regional authorities.
Guests at the wedding told Rudaw from the hospital that the fire started when fireworks were set off before the newlyweds’ slow dance – and footage showed burning debris falling from the ceiling as the bride and groom romped on the dance floor clung to each other.
The couple were among the victims of the fire, said Nineveh’s deputy health chief Ahmed Dubardani. However, some guests claimed that the bride and groom survived the fire by escaping through the kitchen.
“They lit fireworks. It hit the ceiling, which caught fire,” one injured man said in a report, which was confirmed by a second injured guest. “The entire hall was on fire within seconds.”
Civil defense officials told the Iraqi news agency that the exterior of the wedding hall contained illegal and “highly flammable, inexpensive” cladding materials that “collapse within minutes.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, with the support of the country’s President Abdul Latif Rashid, has ordered an investigation into the fire, and state media reported that the Interior Ministry had issued four arrest warrants against the owners of the wedding hall.
Similar bodies have been blamed in several previous fires in Iraq, most recently in July 2021, when a fire at a hospital in the city of Nasiriyah killed between 60 and 92 people.
Ambulance sirens blared for hours after Tuesday night’s fire as dozens of injured people were pulled from the charred and twisted rubble of the crowded hall. Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages and with oxygen.
“It wasn’t a wedding. “It was hell,” said Mariam Khedr as she stood with other bereaved families outside a morgue in Mosul as they waited for officials to unearth the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and her three young grandchildren – the youngest just eight months old old – would return.
Another woman outside the mortuary where the bodies lay in bags said: “I lost my daughter, her husband and their three-year-old child. They were all burned. My heart is on fire.”
A man named Youssef, standing nearby with burns on his hands and face, said he couldn’t see anything when the fire broke out and the power went out. While he grabbed his three-year-old grandson and managed to free himself, his wife – in her fifties – fell in the chaos and died.
Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno, said: “We saw the fire pulsating and coming from the hall. Those who made it got out and those who didn’t got stuck.”
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the wedding, said it was unclear who was responsible for the fire.
“It could be a mistake by the organizers or hosts of the venue or perhaps a technical error,” Mr Khoury said. “It was literally a disaster.”
One of the venue’s owners, Chonny Suleiman Naboo, blamed the fire on an “electrical fault in the ceiling.” He insisted that the venue had “all permissions from the officials” and that his brother and the hall supervisor would hand themselves in to the authorities.
“We were attacked by residents and our cars were damaged due to the incident and we fear that our homes may also be attacked,” Mr Naboo said.
The wedding took place in Hamdaniya district, which is located in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. While it is under the control of the Iraqi central government, it is also claimed by Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. The Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has also ordered help to the hospitals there.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been violently attacked by extremists, first by al-Qaeda and then by the Islamic State militant group. The number of Christians in Iraq is currently estimated at 150,000, down from 1.5 million two decades ago.
Although the Nineveh Plain was wrested from ISIS six years ago, some towns still lie largely in ruins and lack basic services. Many Christians have gone to Europe, Australia or the United States.
Additional reporting by agencies