The death toll from a fire that ripped through a coronavirus hospital in southern Iraq increased to 66 on Tuesday, health officials said, as weeping families and a doctor who worked there accused authorities of incompetence.
Two health sources claimed that twelve individuals – patients and visitors to the hospital – were still missing, implying that the death toll from Monday night’s fire in Nassirya could rise even higher.
More than 100 people were hurt in the blaze, which police and civil defense officials say started when sparks from faulty wiring moved to an oxygen tank, which subsequently burst.
It was Iraq’s second such tragedy in three months, and the country’s president on Tuesday blamed corruption for both.
Rescue teams were using a heavy crane to remove the charred and melted remains of the part of the city’s al-Hussain hospital where COVID-19 patients were being treated, as relatives gathered nearby.
A medic at the hospital, who declined to give his name and whose Monday shift ended a few hours before the fire broke out, said the absence of basic of safety measures meant it was an accident in the making.
“The hospital lacks a fire sprinkler system or even a simple fire alarm,” he told Reuters.
“We’ve complained several times over the last three months that a disaster may occur at any time from a cigarette stub, but health officials have always responded with the same response: ‘we don’t have the money.'”
A similar explosion at Baghdad’s COVID-19 hospital killed at least 82 people and injured 110 more in April. Monday’s incident, according to the director of Iraq’s semi-official Human Rights Commission, demonstrated how poor safety safeguards remain in a health system ravaged by war and sanctions.
“The fact that such a catastrophic tragedy occurred again a few months later indicates that no (adequate) precautions have been made to prevent it,” Ali Bayati remarked.
The fact that the hospital had been built with lightweight sandwich panels separating the wards had made the fire spread faster, local civil defense authority head Salah Jabbar said.
Health and civil defense managers in the city and the hospital’s manager had been suspended and arrested on Monday on the orders of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, his office said.
Government investigators arrived in Nassiriya on Tuesday morning, according to a statement. Their findings would be announced within a week, Kadhimi’s office said.
‘A FAILED GOVERNMENT’
President Barham Salih, writing on Twitter, said both fires were “the result of endemic corruption and mismanagement that disregards the lives of Iraqis”.
At the city’s morgue, anger spread among people gathered as they waited to receive their relatives’ bodies.
“No quick response to the fire, not enough firefighters. Sick people burned to death. It’s a disaster,” said Mohammed Fadhil, who was waiting there to receive his bother’s body.
According to two health officials, the fatalities from Monday’s fire included 21 unidentified charred bodies.
A health worker told Reuters on Monday before entering the blazing building that the blaze trapped numerous patients inside the coronavirus unit, which rescue personnel battled to reach.
An enraged Imad Hashim mourned as he prepared to bury his mother, sister-in-law, and niece in Najaf, a sacred Shi’ite city some 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Nassiriya.
“After losing my family, what should I say?” the 46-year-old wondered. “It’s pointless to demand anything from a broken government. This case will be forgotten in three days, just like the others.”