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Iraq: Fire at wedding leaves at least 120 people dead

Huge crowds of people were celebrating when a blaze, most likely caused by fireworks, ripped through the venue killing at least 120 people
A firefighter checks the damage to the event hall in Qaraqosh, on 27 September 2023 (AFP)

At least 120 people died and hundreds more were injured in a fire at a wedding in Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, health officials have said. 

The blaze ripped through a venue hosting a large crowd of people in the Al-Hamdaniya district late on Tuesday. 

The cause of the fire has yet to be confirmed. Early assessments indicate it may have been ignited by fireworks used during the celebrations, state media said. 

"[As the bride and groom] were slow dancing, the fireworks started to climb to the ceiling [and] the whole hall went up in flames," Rania Waad, who sustained a burn to her hand, told AFP news agency. 

"We couldn't see anything," the 17-year-old added. "We were suffocating, we didn't know how to get out."

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Another eyewitness, 55-year-old Amer Karoomi Hanna, told Middle East Eye that he was at home when he heard about the fire: "I arrived at 10.30pm and the fire was still raging in the hall. My friends had told me about it and I came quickly. I have no relatives, but everyone is like family in Qaraqosh. There are no strangers in this town."

"The situation is very difficult. The civil defence group, the police and the citizens did not fail in their jobs," he added.

In addition to local emergency services, people from nearby districts joined the efforts to tackle the blaze, even using their own vehicles to bring water, according to Hanna.

"I saw people walking around, tired, trying to extract the wounded. There was a large number of people in the hall. I do not remember how many there were because it was dark and at night."

Amid the mayhem it is still unknown whether the bride and groom are among the victims.

"In every neighbourhood of Qaraqosh, there is solace and sadness," Hanna said.

Toxic fumes

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society said there were at least 450 casualties, but did not provide a detailed breakdown of the number of people who died.

Officials in Nineveh province said that at least 120 people had been confirmed dead and 200 injured, but the numbers are likely to rise.

Saif al-Badr, spokesman for the Iraqi health ministry, told AFP that most of the injured were being treated for burns or oxygen deprivation. He added that there had been crowd crushes at the scene.

A man reacts at the site of a fatal fire in the district of Al-Hamdaniya in Nineveh province, Iraq, on 27 September 2023 (AP)

The hall is located in Qaraqosh, also known Bakhdida, an Assyrian city about 32km southeast of Mosul which is home to a predominantly Christian population.

Civil defence workers were searching through charred wreckage and bodies for survivors into the early hours of Wednesday. 

Parts of the venue had collapsed due to the use of highly flammable building materials that break easily from fires, the Nineveh health directorate said.

Nineveh Governor Najm al-Jubouri, speaking at a press conference held in Mosul, said that one of the owners of Al-Haytham Hall fled and his whereabouts were unknown, while nine other people related to the incident were arrested. 

According to the Iraqi civil defence, the blaze ignited inside the wedding hall before spreading rapidly into other parts of the building, which was not adhering to safety measures and lacked proper warning and extinguishing systems.

'Even those who made their way out were broken'

Imad Yohana, eyewitness

The use of highly flammable plastic panels made matters worse, as it released toxic gas after the fire, the civil defence added.

"We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall," Imad Yohana, 34, who survived the inferno, told Reuters news agency. 

"Those who managed got out, and those who didn't got stuck. Even those who made their way out were broken," Yohana added. 

Week of mourning

Jubouri also announced a week of mourning and the postponement of celebrations planned on Wednesday to mark the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, which are known as the Mawlid.  

He urged "all houses of worship" to hold prayers for the "martyrs of the fire and a speedy recovery for the wounded and injured". 

The United Nations mission in Iraq expressed its shock at the huge loss of life due to the fire.

"We are shocked and hurt by the huge loss of life and injuries in the fire that occurred in Al-Hamdaniya in Nineveh. Huge tragedy. Our sincere condolences to the families who lost loved ones. We wish those injured a speedy recovery," the UN wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari said that a formal investigation had been opened into the disaster.

In a statement, the Ministry of Interior said that "the initial report on the Al-Hamdaniya Hall accident indicates that it is not criminal" but was instead because of a breakdown in safety and security procedures.

Additional reporting by Ismael Adnan in Iraq

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