A fire broke out in a crowded church during prayers in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, killing at least 41 worshipers and injuring 14 others.
The church soon filled with thick black smoke, and witnesses said many of the trapped worshipers jumped from the upper floors to escape. “Suffocation, suffocation, they all died,” said a stunned witness, only mentioning a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
It was not immediately known what caused the fire to break out in the Abu Sefein Church in the Imbaba neighborhood, which is inhabited by the working class. A preliminary investigation indicated a short circuit, according to a police statement.
Footage of the scene circulating online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the flames, while others took the victims to ambulances. The families waited for news of relatives who were inside the church.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the building when the fire broke out.
“There are children we did not know how to reach,” Abu Bishoy said. We do not know this son or daughter. Is this possible?”
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and the stampede as people tried to escape the blazes for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Witness Imad Hanna said that the church includes two places that are used as day care for the children, and that one of the church workers managed to take out many of the children.
“We went upstairs and found dead people. We started to see from the outside that the smoke was rising, and people wanted to jump from the top floor. … We found the children.”
The Egyptian Coptic Church and the Egyptian Ministry of Health reported the death toll. The church said the fire broke out while the service was underway. The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo.
Officials said 15 fire engines were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames, while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi spoke by phone with the second Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, according to what the president’s office announced. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” Sisi wrote on Facebook. I directed all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this incident and its effects.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar said in a statement that two of the injured have been discharged from the hospital, while 12 others are still receiving treatment.
The Ministry of Interior said that it received a report of the fire at nine in the morning local time, and found that the fire broke out in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed a short circuit for the fire, which sent huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s public prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors has been sent to the church.
Later on Sunday, emergency services said they were able to put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site.
Christians in Egypt make up about 10% of the country’s population of 103 million and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
The Sunday fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire in a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.
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