Iraq fire: Eyewitnesses tell of wedding hall blaze horror

Nearly 100 people have been killed and many more injured in a blaze at a wedding celebration in Qaraqosh in northern Iraq. Eyewitnesses have described to the BBC scenes of horror and panic as the fire took hold.

Nineteen-year-old Ghaly Nassim was only a few metres away from the al-Haitham banquet hall when the fire broke out on Tuesday evening.

He rushed to help five of his friends who were trapped inside.

“One door was blocked, so we opened it by force. Massive flames came out of the hall. It was like Hell’s doors opened,” he said.

“The temperature was unbearable. I cannot describe the extreme heat.”

At least 94 people were killed and 100 others were injured in the fire, which broke out during the first dance of the bride and groom. Civil defence officials told BBC News Arabic that the couple survived, though initial reports said they had perished.

Mr Nassim described the scenes as a “real tragedy”.

“I could not do anything but run away from the fire,” he said, sounding exhausted over the phone line.

“After the firefighters arrived, I rushed inside to look for my friends. I saw 26 dead bodies in the bathroom. A 12-year-old girl was completely burnt and left in a corner.”

The Iraqi Civil Defence media spokesperson, Gawdat Abdul Rahman, told the BBC that the fire was caused by fireworks which were set off inside the hall in the majority Christian town.

The use of highly flammable building material inside the venue acted as a propellant, he added.

Mr Nassim believes that a lack of adequate emergency exits made things worse, as most guests tried to leave using the hall’s main entrance, possibly causing a crush.

Destroyed ‘in minutes’

He said his friends had been accounted for and were safe.

Scene of blaze (27/09/23)
Image caption,Highly flammable material is thought to have fuelled the blaze

One of them, 17-year-old Tommy Uday, was standing next to the exit when the fire broke out. This allowed him to flee quickly.

“I saw a big black cloud of smoke coming out of the ceiling, so I quickly ran out,” he said, adding that “the entire place was destroyed in a mere five minutes”.

About 50 bodies were laid to rest on Wednesday. The remaining bodies are expected to be buried the following day. But many people are still searching for family members.

Ghazwan was separated from his 33-year-old wife, four-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter when the fire erupted.

His other daughter, who is 10 years old, came out of the hall “suffering burns in almost 98% of her body”, Ghazwan’s sister Eisan told the BBC.

She said that her brother was going around hospitals searching for his family.

Hospitals struggling

Inside Mosul’s specialised medical centre for burns, Dr Waad Salem told the BBC about 60% of those injured suffered severe burns.

“The majority of the burns are in the face, chest and hands,” he said, adding that women and children were among the most affected.

Mourners at a funeral of a victim of the fire (27/09/23)
Image caption,Many of those killed were buried the day after the disaster

Chief Nurse Israa Mohammed treated the injured throughout the night. She told the BBC she tended to about 200 patients.

“What I saw was very difficult,” she said.

“I have seen people with more than 90% of their bodies completely burnt,” she said, adding that at least 50 children were pronounced dead as soon as they arrived at the hospital.

Ms Mohammed said her medical facility was lacking in medical supplies and struggling to cope with the high influx of victims.

For many like Mr Nassim and his friends, it will be very hard to shake off the shock they have witnessed.

“I cannot describe what I feel,” he said. “I know families that lost almost everyone. At least three families have lost every single member in the fire. The whole community is sad, not only in Nineveh province, but all over Iraq. The whole country is sad.”

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