At least 64 people have been killed in a fire at the coronavirus isolation ward of a hospital in Iraq, the second such deadly blaze in a COVID-19 unit in three months, state news agency INA said on Tuesday.
More than 100 were also injured in the fire that broke out at the al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriya late on Monday, health officials said. The blaze was brought under control by civil defence teams.
A medical source with the health directorate told AFP news agency the “main reason behind the fire… was the explosion of oxygen tanks”.
Haydar al-Zamili, the local health authority’s spokesperson, said earlier on Tuesday that 52 bodies had been retrieved while 22 people had been hurt after the fire had “ripped through the COVID isolation ward”.
“The victims died of burns and the search is continuing,” he added, noting that there were fears people could still be trapped inside the building.
The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.
The Dhi Qar health directorate said that among those killed were two medical staff members, and the hospital’s security guard.
Health sources told Reuters news agency the death toll could rise as many patients were still missing.
Health officials at Nasiriya said search operations at the hospital were continuing, but that thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the burned-out wards.
Footage shared online showed thick clouds of smoke billowing from the hospital buildings.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Baghdad, said family members and city residents had rushed to the scene.
“Many people have taken to the streets in Nasiriya and in front of the hospital,” said Abdelwahed, who said that the manager of the hospital had resigned.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said that the incident that unfolded in Al-Hussein hospital was the result of rampant corruption and mismanagement. He added that the families of those killed needed an investigation and accountability, and called for a review of the country’s institutions.
Angry relatives clashed with police, setting fire to two police vehicles, a Reuters witness said.
“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father’s body,” said one young man as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital’s courtyard.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi also declared a state of emergency in the governorate of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriya is located, Abdelwahed reported.
In a tweet, al-Kadhimi said that his office was holding an emergency meeting to discuss “the causes and repercussions” of the incident. He ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s director of civil defence.
Meanwhile, the governor of Dhi Qar announced the formation of a higher committee to investigate the circumstances of the accident, and has asked for a report to be submitted within 48 hours.
Earlier on Monday, a minor fire broke out at the health ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad, but it was quickly contained and no fatalities were recorded.
The blaze at the Nasiriya hospital is the second such tragedy this year.
In April, a fire at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders killed 82 people and injured 110 others.
Many of the victims were on respirators being treated for COVID-19 and were burned or suffocated in the resulting inferno that spread rapidly through the hospital, where dozens of relatives were visiting patients in the intensive care unit.
The then-health minister, Hassan al-Tamimi, resigned.
Iraq has recorded more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and at least 17,000 deaths.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES