MOSUL: 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.
While the authorities announced an investigation into the inferno, officials pointed to indoor fireworks as the likely cause for the blaze that sparked a stampede for the exits.
Firefighters searched the charred skeleton of the building in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya, through 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’s deputy governor Hassan Al Allaf said 113 people had been confirmed dead. The head of the province’s Red Crescent branch said the death toll was not final, but that it “exceeds hundreds injured and dozens killed”.
The fire tore through a large hall after flares were lit during the celebration, causing a fire in the ceiling, Interior Minister Abdul Amir Shammari said, according to state media.
A video of the event, posted on social media, appeared to show the flares suddenly catching a glittering ceiling decoration that burst into flames.
Iraq’s interior ministry said it had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the hall, state media reported, as President Abdul Latif Rashid called for an investigation.
“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed, got out and those who didn’t, got stuck,” said survivor Imad Yohana.
Eyewitnesses at the site said the building caught fire at 10:45pm Iraq time.
“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 in bags as vehicles came to collect those that had been identified.
At Mar Youhanna church, where the wedding service took place before the evening party, deacon Hani Al Kasmousa said prayers for the dead would take place at the cemetery because there was not enough room in the church for so many mourners. “Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness. Now we are preparing their burial,” he said, with new coffins stacked along an alleyway near his church.
Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2023