Hospital Fire Kills 82, Sparks Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq

The fire started on the floor designated for the pulmonary intensive care unit

Almost 20 people died in a fire at a hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated in Baghdad, according to sources on Saturday, Anadolu Agency reported.

The fire at the Ibn Khatib hospital in the Diyala Bridge area of the Iraqi capital occurred after an accident caused an oxygen tank to explode, the sources said. "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", an official of a health organization said.

Nurse Maher Ahmed was called to the scene late Saturday to help evacuate patients.

There were at least 120 patients in the hospital at the time of the fire, a doctor at the hospital said. "They would have minutes to live without oxygen". Iraqi authorities have not released to an official casualty count.

Paramedics carried the bodies, many burned beyond recognition, to al-Zafaraniya Hospital, where Ahmed said forensics teams will attempt to identify them by matching DNA samples to relatives. "Please, two of my relatives are missing", a woman posted on social media. Family members were searching for patients Sunday.

Flames spread quickly across multiple floors in the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the hospital's intensive care unit where most severe COVID-19 cases are treated, a medical source said.

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Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest since Iraq began recording infection rates early previous year. Daily coronavirus rates now average above 8,000 new cases, the highest since the pandemic broke out in the country past year.

The prime minster convened the special cabinet session hours after the flames broke out.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi - who is backed by the powerful Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr - amid angry calls on social media for him to be sacked, as part of a probe that would also include the governor of Baghdad.

"Negligence in such matters is not a mistake, but a crime for which all negligent parties must bear responsibility", said the Iraqi prime minister.

The UN's top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed "shock" at the tragedy and called "for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster can not reoccur".

At the Vatican, Pope Francis, who concluded a historic trip to Iraq last month, remembered those who perished in the blaze. "Let's pray for them", he said.

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