During a Sunday morning service in the Egyptian capital, a fire broke out in a crowded Coptic Orthodox church. Among the forty-one victims, there are 15 small children.
The fire quickly filled the room with thick black smoke. Eyewitnesses say that several trapped parishioners jumped from the upper floors of the church of the martyr Abu Sefein, fleeing from strong flames and suffocating smoke. They are all dead, writes Associated Press. The publication clarifies that 20 bodies were delivered to the Imbama State Hospital. Among them are 10 children, including three twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old baby.
Musa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told AP that among the dead were 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and aunt. Church Bishop Abdul Masih Bakhit was also among the victims. Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals. 16 people were injured, including four police officers involved in the rescue work.
Sobbing families waited outside for news of relatives who were in the church and nearby hospitals. According to eyewitnesses, there were many children in the 4-storey building, which housed two kindergartens. According to Christian news website Copts United, 15 children died in the fire. Witness Emad Khanna said that a church worker managed to get several kids out of church kindergartens.
The cause of the church fire in the Imbam working-class area is not yet known. According to a police statement, an initial investigation revealed an electrical short circuit.
The country’s health minister blamed the deaths on smoke and stampede as people tried to escape the fire. This is one of the worst fires in Egypt in recent years. The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated areas of Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week, and traffic jams form on the streets of Imbama and nearby areas in the morning. Some relatives expressed outrage at the delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters: “They came after people had died. … They came after the church burned down.”
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar countered that the first ambulance arrived at the scene two minutes after the fire was reported. Officials said 15 fire engines were sent to the scene of the tragic incident to extinguish the flames, while ambulances transported the victims to nearby hospitals.
The head of state, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, spoke on the phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to express his condolences, the presidential press service said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also expressed condolences to the head of the Coptic Church. The Egyptian President wrote on Facebook:
“I am closely following the development of the tragic incident. I instructed state bodies and institutions to take all necessary measures to eliminate its consequences.”
Health Minister Abdel-Ghafar said two of the wounded have been discharged from the hospital, while the rest are still being treated.
The Interior Ministry said first responders discovered that the fire had started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed the fire on a short circuit, which produced a huge amount of smoke. The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawi, ordered an investigation, and a team of prosecutors was sent to the church. He noted that most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fires in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire safety regulations are often neglected. Last year, a fire in a garment factory near Cairo left 20 people dead and 24 injured.