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Fire at Iraqi wedding hall caused by fireworks kills more than 100

Soldiers and emergency responders among others gather around ambulances carrying wounded people after a fire broke out during a wedding at an event hall, outside Hamdaniyah general hospital in Al-Hamdaniyah, Iraq, on Wednesday. At least 100 people were killed and more than 150 injured when a fire broke out during a wedding at an event hall in the northern Iraqi town, according to state media and health officials.  (Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP)
By Mustafa Salim, Louisa Loveluck, Praveena Somasundaram and Rachel Pannett Washington Post

BAGHDAD – As the newly married couple came together on the dance floor, a ring of Roman candle fireworks erupted around them in the crowded wedding hall as hundreds of guests watched.

The fireworks, however, set the ceiling on fire, and suddenly, videos taken Tuesday night show, flames were cascading down on the shocked couple as the guests seated together on long tables scrambled to escape.

The fire in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province killed at least 113 people, the deputy governor, Hassan al-Allaq, said on Wednesday, with the civil defense putting the wounded at about 200. The tragedy brought back ugly memories of a string of disasters and fires in Iraq that have been widely blamed on corruption and official negligence.

“I blame the whole system,” said Alex Najeeb Benjamin, who attended the wedding at a church but skipped the reception, where he dropped off his two sisters and brother. “We still neglect all safety and security measures due to greed and avarice, and because of this, more than 100 lives were taken while they were celebrating.”

A wedding invitation shared online identified the bride as Haneen and the groom as Revan, members of Iraq’s Christian community from the town of al-Hamdaniyah, about 200 miles north of the capital, Baghdad. The venue, like many buildings in Iraq, was constructed using flammable panels, the Iraqi News Agency reported. It later collapsed under the heat of the blaze.

Hearing the screams from his house nearby, Benjamin rushed outside to see an inferno. “In a few minutes, the fire ate everything,” he said. “One of my sisters managed to get out, the other was injured; it took more than 30 minutes for the authorities to arrive.”

A guest, Bahnam Mazin, who was sitting with his family at the back of the hall, said music had initially masked the roar of the creeping flames. When people finally noticed the fire, they began a stampede to the door, and many were crushed as they ran. “It was horrific … hearing the sounds of people burning,” Mazin said. The roof collapsed shortly after he escaped, he recalled.

The bride and groom managed to survive and were being treated for burns at a hospital in Erbil, relatives said.

Authorities declared a three-day mourning period as looping scenes of the blazing wedding hall played on television screens across the nation.

The town gained a degree of international prominence when Pope Francis visited in 2019, four years after Islamic State militants were driven from its gates, in a visit intended to show support for what remains of Iraq’s Christian community. Their numbers have shrunk sevenfold in three decades, partly because of violent persecution, as hundreds of thousands sought refuge elsewhere.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s office said Wednesday that he had ordered an investigation into its causes and asked authorities to prepare a comprehensive list of the victims so their families could receive financial compensation.

But recent experiences suggest that little will change: His predecessor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, did the same after fires ripped through two hospital wards in 2021, killing scores, but with few obvious results. Two years before that, in Nineveh province, a government investigation into how 128 people died when their ferry sank also led to little discernible improvements.

Iraq’s political parties routinely siphon vast sums from the country’s budget through corrupt contracts that either deliver cut-rate services or do not deliver at all. In the construction sector, this means that cheap – and often flammable – materials are frequently used. Civil defense officials say that safety measures in most government buildings are minimal to absent.

Brig. Gen. Jawdat Abdulrahman, a spokesman for the country’s rescue force, said the owners of the wedding hall had been asked to remove the building’s flammable cladding, but nothing had been done. He added that the hall was built using many of the same flammable materials implicated in the previous disastrous fires. The Interior Ministry issued four arrest warrants for the owners.

“Every one of these incidents has hundreds of victims, but [the authorities] never learn from their mistakes,” said Hayder Al-Shakeri, a research fellow with Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program’s Iraq Initiative. “For the fires, they know exactly what systems they should follow, how they should give licenses and how to stop such places from running if they are not licensed properly.”

On Wednesday, Health Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr said the most seriously injured wedding guests had been transferred to regional health centers. Benjamin said that after he got his sister to the local hospital, she was referred to one in Duhok, 60 miles way, where there was a burn unit.

Videos from the scene showed firefighters combing the wreckage as armed officials stood guard on a street lined with emergency vehicles. Charred metal dangled from the ceiling of the burned-out building.

By morning, those still searching the wreckage were told to head to the morgue, Benjamin said. “I went there, and there were hundreds of people like me looking for their loved ones. Most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition, and all you can hear is people yelling and crying,” he said.

He found his brother, who was probably killed by the stampede. “Yesterday was supposed to be a happy day, filled with joy and celebration, then in less than 24 hours, I buried my only brother.”