MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — A raging fire seemingly caused by fireworks set off to celebrate a Christian wedding consumed a hall packed with guests in northern Iraq, killing at least 100 people and injuring 150 others as authorities warned Wednesday the death toll could still rise.
Authorities said that flammable building materials also contributed to the latest disaster to hit Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority. The fire happened in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province, authorities said. That’s a predominantly Christian area just outside of the city of Mosul, some 335 kilometers (205 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
There was no official word on the cause of the blaze, but the Kurdish television news channel Rudaw showed fireworks shooting up from the floor of the event and setting a chandelier aflame.
In the blaze’s aftermath, only charred metal and debris could be seen as people walked through the scene of the fire, the only light coming from television cameras and the lights of onlookers’ mobile phones.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages, receiving oxygen as their families milled through hallways and outside as workers organized more oxygen cylinders.
Other footage shown on other local television networks appeared to show the bride and groom on the dance floor when the fire began, stunned by the sight of the burning debris. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were among those hurt.
Health officials in Nineveh province raised the death toll to 114, though federal officials did not immediately update their figure of at least 100 killed. Health Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr put the number of injured at 150 in that earlier statement carried by the state-run Iraqi News Agency.
“All efforts are being made to provide relief to those affected by the unfortunate accident,” al-Badr said.
Ahmed Dubardani, a health official in the province, told Rudaw that many of those injured suffered serious burns.
“The majority of them were completely burned and some others had 50 to 60% of their bodies burned,” Dubardani said. “This is not good at all. The majority of them were not in good condition.”
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s Interior and Health officials to provide relief, his office said in a statement online.
Najim al-Jubouri, the provincial governor of Nineveh, said some of the injured had been transferred to regional hospitals. He cautioned there were no final casualty figures yet from the blaze, which suggests the death toll still may rise.
One witness, who gave just his first name as Amer, said he and others rushed to the wedding hall as they heard sounds of screaming inside the venue. Amer said a cousin who attended the wedding survived, but suffered burns.
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the wedding, said it was unclear who was to blame for the fire.
“It could be a mistake by the event organizers or venue hosts, or maybe a technical error,” Khoury told The Associated Press. “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
Civil defense officials quoted by the Iraqi News Agency described the wedding hall’s exterior as decorated with highly flammable cladding that is illegal in the country.
“The fire led to the collapse of parts of the hall as a result of the use of highly flammable, low-cost building materials that collapse within minutes when the fire breaks out,” civil defense said.
It wasn’t immediately clear why authorities in Iraq allowed the cladding to be used on the hall, though corruption and mismanagement remains endemic two decades after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
While some types of cladding can be made with fire-resistant material, experts say those that have caught fire at the wedding hall and elsewhere weren’t designed to meet stricter safety standards and often were put onto buildings without any breaks to slow or halt a possible blaze. That includes the 2017 Grenfell Fire in London that killed 72 people in the greatest loss of life in a fire on British soil since World War II, as well as multiple high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been violently targeted by extremists first from al-Qaida and then the Islamic State militant group. Although the Nineveh plains, the historic homeland, was wrested back from the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns are still mostly rubble and lack basic services. Many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the United States.
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total population is more than 40 million.
Associated Press writers Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.