CAIRO A fire ripped through a packed Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with black smoke and killing 41 worshippers, including at least 15 children.
Some trapped peers jumped from the upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein Church to try to escape the raging flames, witnesses said. “Suffocation, suffocation, all dead,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen involved in the rescue effort.
The cause of the fire at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
Weeping families waited outside to hear from relatives who were inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage from the scene circulated online showed charred furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen extinguishing the flames while others transported the victims to ambulances.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building, which had two day care facilities.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter it is. Is that possible?”
A total of 15 children were killed in the fire, according to Copts United, a news website that focuses on Christian news.
A casualty list obtained by The Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to Imbaba Public Hospital. The three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old, she said. The church’s bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital mortuary.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and aunt were among those killed.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church employee managed to get several children out of the church’s day care facility.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was getting bigger and people wanted to jump from the top floor,” Hanna said.
“We found the children”, some dead, some alive, he added.
The country’s health minister blamed smoke and chaos as people tried to flee the fire for the casualties. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week and traffic jams block the roads in Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.
Some relatives criticized what they said were delays in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. “They came after people died… They came after the church burned,” shouted a woman standing outside the burning church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar countered that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.
Fifteen fire engines were sent to the scene to put out the flames, while ambulances transported the victims to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to express his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also offered condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident”, el-Sissi wrote on Facebook. “I directed all state agencies and institutions to take all the necessary measures and immediately face this accident and its consequences.
Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the wounded had been released from hospital, while the others were still being treated.
The Interior Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders discovered the fire had broken out in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short circuit for the fire, which produced large amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada al-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was sent to the church. He said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation.
On Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they managed to put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said that the surviving victims and the families of the dead would receive compensation payments and that the government would rebuild the church.
In the late afternoon, coffins carrying the dead were transferred to ambulances for pre-burial prayers at two churches in the nearby Waraq neighborhood, as weeping women lined their route. Hundreds of mourners gathered at churches for the funerals, before taking the bodies for burial in nearby cemeteries.
Egypt’s Christians make up about 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire at a clothing factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24.
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