At least 18 children have died in a fire that killed dozens of worshipers who had gathered for Sunday morning mass at a church in Cairo’s capital city of Giza, according to hospital documents seen by CNN.
The Coptic Church of Egypt said in a statement, referring to health officials, that the death toll was 41 and 14 people were injured. Hospital documents show that the children are between the ages of 3 and 16.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the fire started at around 9:00 am local time due to a power outage in an air conditioning unit on the second floor of the church. The small church is located in the densely populated Imbaba district.
The ministry said in a Facebook post that most of the deaths and injuries were caused by smoke in church classrooms after the power outage.
At least two officers and three civil protection officers who responded to the fire were injured, the ministry said.
The Spokesperson of the Coptic Church, High Priest Musa Ibrahim, said church officials believed the fire was accidental and that a priest was among the dead.
Egypt’s Coptic community and churches have historically been the target of religious-based violence and attacks, with increasing persecution and discrimination since the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011.
The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Pope II. “We are in constant contact with local authorities and the Ministry of Health,” Tawadros said, according to a church spokesperson.
Youssef Islam, 16, who works at a bakery adjacent to the church, said the worst of the flames was on the fourth floor. He said he ran to the church and intended to get water from the third floor to help put out the upstairs flames.
But when he broke through a door, he saw the corpses of the children piled on top of each other. “It’s a scary scene,” he said. “Probably this was the nursery.”
Mariam Malak, 23, told CNN she had left the church shortly before the fire broke out.
“I left the church after Sunday service and was on my way to work when my mom called me. She thought I was caught in the fire. I turned around and saw the church in flames. I missed it by just a few minutes,” he said.
“Everyone who was there, including our father, Abdel Masih, who led the prayer this morning, and many of our family and friends, went to heaven. Now we are trying to identify everyone.”
CNN also spoke to a family who passed through the neighborhood to search for their cousin’s body after the fire subsided.
“I can’t believe I’ll never see you again, Irini. Why did you leave us so soon?” One of the women, Afaf, muttered to herself as she went from church to church. Amany Marina, Afaf’s older sister, took her hand and prayed silently. Their cousin Amany cried silently in the front seat as her husband Sameh continued to drive.
It was almost sunset when they arrived at the church in the Al-Warraq district, where the prayer for the dead was held. The three women held hands as they passed through security.
Hundreds of people flocked to the church, waiting for the coffins to be brought from the hospital. Coffins of young children were carried through the church door above the crowd.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted his condolences to those who lost their lives in the fire.
“My deepest condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved to their Lord in one of their houses of worship,” Sisi said.
The Egyptian President said he is closely following the developments regarding the “tragic accident” and has directed government agencies to take the necessary measures to promptly respond to the tragedy and provide care to the injured.
A spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that Sisi had instructed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to repair the church. According to government news Ahramonline.
The state news agency said Hesham El Swefy, head of the Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority, told Pope Tawadros in a phone call about Sisi’s instructions to rebuild the church.
Egyptian football player Mo Salah, who plays for Liverpool and captains the national team, also sent a message of support to those affected by the tragedy on Sunday, saying in a tweet: “My heartfelt condolences to the victims of the Abu Sefein Church and wish a speedy recovery to all injured.”
Egypt state news reported that the preliminary investigation into the fire “showed that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit”. Quoting the statement of Attorney General Hamad El Sawy.
According to Egyptian state news, El Sawy visited the area and said eyewitnesses told his team that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in a generator.
“The prosecution team examined the bodies of all victims and found no visible wounds on the bodies other than signs of suffocation,” El Sawy said.
According to the quoted statement, the prosecution questioned 14 of the injured and instructed the Criminal Evidence Public Administration to collect evidence at the scene.