A fire ripped through a packed wedding hall in northern Iraq late on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people in a Christian town that had survived occupation by the militant Islamic State group as authorities announced an investigation into the blaze.
Firefighters searched the charred skeleton of the building in Qaraqoush into Wednesday morning and bereaved relatives gathered outside a morgue in the nearby city of Mosul, wailing and rocking in distress.
“This was not a wedding. This was hell,” said Mariam Khedr, crying and hitting herself as she waited for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren, the youngest aged just eight months.
Survivors said hundreds of people were at the wedding celebration, which followed an earlier church service, and the fire began about an hour into the event when flares ignited a ceiling decoration as the bride and groom danced.
Nineveh province Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaq told Reuters 113 people had been confirmed dead, with state media putting the death toll at least 100, with 150 people injured.
The fire tore through a large events hall in Hamdaniya after flares were lit during the celebration, causing a fire in the ceiling, Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari said according to state media.
A video of the event, posted on social media but not yet verified by Reuters, appeared to show the flares suddenly catching a glittering ceiling decoration that burst into flames, as sounds of excitement turned rapidly to panic.
Another video that Reuters has not yet verified showed a couple dancing in wedding clothes as burning material begins dropping to the floor.
Most residents of Qaraqoush, which is mostly Christian but also home to some members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, fled the town when IS seized it in 2014. But they returned after the group was ousted in 2017.
The Interior Ministry said it had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the wedding hall, state media reported, and President Abdul Latif Rashid called for an investigation.
In a brief statement, Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani called on the health and interior ministers to “mobilise all rescue efforts” to help the victims of the fire.
“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck,” said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.
Video from a Reuters correspondent at the site showed firefighters clambering over the charred wreckage of the building, shining lights over smouldering ruins.
Preliminary information indicated that the building was made of highly flammable construction materials, contributing to its rapid collapse, state media said.
Eyewitnesses at the site said the building caught fire at around 10:45pm local time (1945 GMT).
“I lost my daughter, her husband and their three-year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning,” a woman said outside the morgue, where bodies lay outside in bags as vehicles came to collect those that had been identified.
A man called Youssef stood nearby with burns covering his hands and face. He said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. He had grabbed his three-year-old grandson and managed to get out.
But his wife, Bashra Mansour, in her 50s, did not make it. She fell in the chaos and died.
Safety standards in Iraq’s construction sector are often disregarded, and the country, whose infrastructure is in disrepair after decades of conflict, is often the scene of fatal fires and accidents.
In July 2021, a fire in the Covid unit of a hospital in southern Iraq killed more than 60 people.
And in April of the same year, exploding oxygen tanks triggered a fire at a hospital in Baghdad — also dedicated to Covid patients — that killed more than 80 people.
Like many Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains, northeast of Mosul, Qaraqosh was ransacked by jihadists of the Islamic State group after they entered the town in 2014.
Qaraqosh and its churches were slowly rebuilt after the group’s ouster in 2017, and Pope Francis visited the town in March 2021.