Authorities: Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, injures 14

Authorities: Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, injures 14
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CAIRO (AP) — A fire at a packed Coptic Orthodox church in Egypt’s capital during morning services on Sunday quickly filled with thick black smoke, killing 41 people, including at least 10 children. Fourteen people were injured.

Eyewitnesses said that many stranded congregants jumped from the upper floors of the Martyr Ebu Safein church to escape the intense flames. “Suffocation, suffocation, they all died,” said a distraught witness, whose only partial name is Abu Bishoy.

The cause of the fire at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba is not yet known. According to a police statement, the initial investigation pointed to an electrical short circuit.

Images from the crime scene circulating online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. It was seen that the firefighters put out the fire, while the others carried the wounded to the ambulances. Crying families waited outside to hear from relatives inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken.

Eyewitnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building when the fire broke out.

“There are children, we didn’t know how to reach them,” Abu Bishoy said. “We also don’t know whose son or daughter this is. Is it possible?”

A hospital document obtained by the Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were delivered to the Imbaba public hospital. Three were siblings, twins were 5 years old and one was 3 years old. Church bishop Abdul Masih Bakhit was among those in the hospital morgue.

21 bodies were taken to other hospitals. It was not immediately known whether there were children among them.

The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and congestion as people tried to escape the fire for causing the deaths. It was one of the biggest fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.

Witness Emad Hanna said that there were two places in the church that were used as nurseries for children and that a church worker managed to get some children out.

“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see smoke growing outside and people wanting to jump from upstairs,” he said.

“We found the children,” he said, some dead, some alive.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church and the country’s health ministry reported the death toll.

The church is located in a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Sunday is the first working day of the week and traffic jams clog the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.

Some relatives criticized that they said there was a delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. A woman standing in front of the burning church shouted, “They came after the people died… They came after the church was burned.”

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said the first ambulance arrived in the area two minutes after the fire was reported.

Officials said that 15 fire trucks were dispatched to the scene to extinguish the flames by ambulances carrying the injured to nearby hospitals.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Coptic Christian Pope II. He said he talked to Tawadros on the phone to offer his condolences. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, and other government officials also expressed their condolences to the head of the Coptic church.

“I’ve been following the developments of the tragic accident closely,” El-Sissi said on Facebook. “I demanded all relevant state institutions and organizations to take all necessary precautions, and that this accident and its effects be eliminated as soon as possible.”

In a statement, Health Minister Abdel-Ghafar said that two of the injured were discharged from the hospital, while 12 people continue to be treated.

The Interior Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9am local time and that first responders determined that the fire started from 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 a large amount of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s attorney general, Hamada al-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors has been dispatched to the church.

Later on Sunday, emergency services said they had managed to extinguish the fire and that the prime minister and other senior government officials had arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said that the victims and their families will be paid as compensation and that the government will rebuild the church as soon as possible.

Christians in Egypt 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 not adequately enforced. A fire at a garment factory near Cairo in March last year killed at least 20 people and injured 24.

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