A devastating fire which killed more than 100 people at a wedding in Iraq broke out as the bride and groom began their slow dance, injured witnesses have said.
More than 150 people including children have been injured, most with severe burns, as a result of the wedding party disaster which struck Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, close to the city of Mosul, on Tuesday night.
Nineveh health official Ahmed Dubardani said the majority of the survivors suffered extensive burn injuries, with fears that the death toll could rise beyond the latest figure of 114 cited by regional authorities.
Guests at the wedding told Rudaw from hospital that the blaze began when fireworks were set off ahead of the newlywed couple’s slow dance – and footage showed flaming debris falling from the ceiling as the bride and groom clung to each other on the dancefloor.
The couple were among those killed in the blaze, said Nineveh’s deputy health chief Ahmed Dubardani, however, some guests maintained that the newlyweds had survived the fire by escaping through the kitchen.
“They lit up fireworks. It hit the ceiling, which caught fire,” one injured man said, in an account corroborated by a second wounded guest. “The entire hall was on fire in seconds.”
Civil defence officials told the Iraqi News Agency that the wedding hall’s exterior contained illegal and “highly flammable, low-cost” cladding materials which “collapse within minutes”.
Iraq’s prime minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani has ordered an investigation into the fire, backed by the country’s president Abdul Latif Rashid, and state media reported that the Ministry of Interior had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the wedding hall.
Similar panels have been blamed in several previous fires in Iraq, most recently in July 2021, when a blaze at a hospital in the city of Nasiriyah killed between 60 to 92 people.
Ambulance sirens wailed for hours after the blaze on Tuesday night as scores of wounded people were pulled from the charred and twisted wreckage of the packed-out hall, with survivors arriving at local hospitals in bandages and receiving oxygen.
“This was not a wedding. This was hell,” said Mariam Khedr, as she stood outside a morgue in Mosul alongside other bereaved relatives, waiting for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren – the youngest aged just eight months.
Another woman outside the morgue, where bodies lay outside in bags, said: “I lost my daughter, her husband and their 3-year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning.”
A man called Youssef, who stood nearby with burns covering his hands and face, said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. While he had grabbed his 3-year-old grandson and managed to get out, his wife – in her 50s – fell in the chaos and died.
Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno, said: “We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck.”
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the wedding, said it was unclear who was to blame for the fire.
“It could be a mistake by the event organizers or venue hosts, or maybe a technical error,” Mr Khoury said. “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
One of the owners of the venue, Chonny Suleiman Naboo, blamed the fire on an “electrical fault in the ceiling”. He insisted the venue had “all the officials’ approvals” and that his brother and the hall’s supervisor would turn themselves into the authorities.
“We were attacked by residents and our cars were damaged because of what happened, and we’re worried that our homes could be attacked too,” Mr Naboo said.
The wedding was in the district of Hamdaniya, which lies on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. While under the control of Iraq’s central government, it is also claimed by Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. Kurdish prime minister Masrour Barzani has also ordered hospitals there to help.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been violently targeted by extremists, first from al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State militant group. The number of Christians in Iraq is currently estimated to be 150,000, down from 1.5 million two decades ago.
Although the Nineveh Plains were wrested back from Isis six years ago, some towns are still mostly rubble and lack basic services. Many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the United States.
Additional reporting by agencies