A fire broke out at a packed Coptic Orthodox church during early morning services in the Egyptian capital, rapidly engulfing black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 15 children.
Witnesses said that many trapped people jumped from the upper floors of the Shaheed Abu Safeen Church to escape the raging flames. “Suffocated, suffocated, they all died,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
Sixteen people, including four policemen engaged in the rescue operation, were injured.
The cause of the fire at the working class church in Imbaba was not immediately known. According to a police statement, preliminary investigation has pointed to an electrical short-circuit.
Crying families waited outside to tell relatives inside the church and nearby hospitals where the victims had been taken. Footage of the scene that was circulated online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen extinguishing the fire, while others took the victims to an ambulance.
Witnesses said there were several children inside the four-story building, which houses a two-day care facility.
“There are kids, we didn’t know how to get them,” said Abu Bishoy. “And we don’t know whose son it is, or whose daughter it is. Is it possible?”
A total of 15 children died in the fire, according to Copts United, a news website focused on Christian news.
A list of victims obtained by the Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to Imbaba Public Hospital. There were three siblings, twins aged 5 and one aged 3. Church bishop Abdul Masih Bakhit was also among those killed in the hospital morgue.
21 bodies were taken to other hospitals.
Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told the AP that the dead included three five-year-olds, their mother, grandmother and an aunt.
Witness Imad Hanna said a church worker managed to pull some children out of church day care facilities.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from outside the smoke was rising, and people wanted to jump off the top floor,” Hannah said.
“We found children,” some dead, some alive, he said.
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and stampede as people tried to flee the fire to find the cause of death. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
The church is located in a narrow street in one of the most densely populated areas in Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week, and in the morning traffic jams jam the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas.
Some relatives criticized what they said was the delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. A woman standing outside the smoldering church cried out, “They came after people died. … They came after the church burned down.”
Health Minister Khalid Abdel-Ghafar said the first ambulance arrived at the scene two minutes after the fire was reported.
Fifteen fire-fighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to douse the blaze, while ambulances rushed the casualties to nearby hospitals, officials said.
The president’s office said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke on the phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II and offered his condolences. Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb also offered condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” Al-Sisi wrote on Facebook. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and deal with this accident and its effects immediately.”
Health Minister Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from hospital, while others were still undergoing treatment.
The Interior Ministry said it was notified of the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders found that an air conditioner on the second floor of the building had caught fire.
The ministry, which oversees the police and firefighters, attributed the fire to an electrical short-circuit, which generated a huge amount of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada al-Sawi, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was sent to the church. He said most of the victims died of inhaling the fumes.
By Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they had managed to put the fire under control and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the scene. Premier Mustafa Madbouli said the surviving victims and the families of the dead would receive compensation and the government would rebuild the church.