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 Islamic State occupation as authorities announced an investigation into the blaze.
Fire fighters 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 Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaf told Reuters 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 events hall 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.
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.
“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 10:45 p.m. local 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 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. (Reuters)