Officials reportedly believe the fire broke out in Ibn Khatib hospital's intensive-care unit, where patients with the most severe cases of COVID were being treated

By Joelle Goldstein
April 26, 2021 01:54 PM
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Baghdad hospital fire
Hospital fire in Baghdad
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP/Shutterstock

At least 82 people are dead after an oxygen tank exploded, leading to a massive fire at a COVID-designated hospital in Iraq, according to multiple reports.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry confirmed the fatal incident on Sunday, explaining that the fire broke out at Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad on Saturday, CNN and The New York Times reported.

Officials believe the blaze, which also injured at least 110 others, was caused by an oxygen tank that had exploded, per the two outlets.

Gen. Kadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq's Civil Defence, said the fire first broke out inside the intensive-care unit, on a floor "designated for pulmonary resuscitation" and where patients with the most severe cases of COVID in Baghdad were being treated, according to BBC News.

Baghdad hospital fire
Hospital fire in Baghdad
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP/Shutterstock

As shown in footage posted by witnesses, it was a chaotic scene as patients and employees rushed to escape the burning building and firefighters worked to put out the flames.

Due to the country's recent rise of COVID cases, the hospital had a ban on most visitors to curb the spread of infection but reportedly allowed relatives to look after patients due to a staff shortage, according to the Times.

Murtadha Riyadh told CNN he was picking up medicine for his grandmother, who was in the hospital's ICU ward along with his aunt, when the explosion happened.

"I ran back to the hospital. I called them to check on them. They told me, 'Don't come up, we are being evacuated,' but they could not make it," Riyadh told the outlet. "Both my grandmother and my aunt died of suffocation."

Emergency service officials confirmed that many people died from smoke suffocation, while a number of other patients passed away after being taken off their oxygen machines during the evacuation, BBC News reported.

"Once the fire started somebody needed to put the auto central pipes off, which means basically cutting the oxygen from those who need it most," Halla Sarraf, the director of Iraqi Health Access, a non-governmental organization, told the outlet.

It took until Sunday morning to finally get the fire under control, according to BBC News.

The hospital — which is located in one of Baghdad's poorer neighborhoods — allegedly had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system or fire hoses set up inside, the Times reported.

Bohan also noted that the flames were able to spread faster due to the flammable material used inside of the ICU's false ceilings, per the Times.

Baghdad hospital fire
Aftermath of the hospital fire in Baghdad
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP/Shutterstock

"If there had been smoke detectors, the situation would have been totally different," Bohan explained to Iraqiya TV, according to the outlet.

In the wake of the blaze, Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced he was suspending Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and Baghdad Governor Mohammed al-Atta, and launching an investigation into the fatal incident, CNN reported.

According to the outlet, al-Kadhimi also said he was giving 10 million Iraqi dinar ($6,800 USD) to each of the families who lost a loved one in the fire.

Ali Akram al-Bayati, a spokesperson for the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq (IHCHR), confirmed that 28 of the victims were being treated in the hospital's COVID-19 ICU and called the incident a "crime against patients who were forced by the severity of the disease as a result of COVID-19 infection to be hospitalized," according to the outlet.

A spokesperson for the Ibn Khatib hospital could not be reached by PEOPLE.

Baghdad hospital fire
Aftermath of the hospital fire in Baghdad
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP/Shutterstock

On Sunday, Iraqi President Barham Salih issued a statement and expressed his condolences to the loved ones of the victims.

"The tragedy of Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital is a wound for the whole nation, and as a result of the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement," Salih wrote. "Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent, and without conducting a comprehensive and serious review of the performance of institutions to ensure that such disasters do not recur."

U.S. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also spoke out on the tragedy in a statement, saying: "We mourn the loss of life in the fire at Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad. We are in touch with Iraqi officials and have offered assistance. Our strategic partnership with Iraq is first and foremost a partnership between our two peoples. We are prepared to support the Government of Iraq and its people at this tragic moment."