AMMAN, Jordan (OSV News) — A Christian wedding party meant to celebrate the joining of young lives turned into a nightmare when a lit flare set the packed hall in northern Iraq on fire, killing more than 120 people and injuring some 250 others, according to local sources, as authorities warned the death toll is expected to rise with many more people still missing.
Father Emanuel Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East, who aids Christians and other Iraqi minorities in the Nineveh Plain region, said in a message sent to OSV News, “Joy turned into a major disaster for the 1,000 invitees, as a massive fire broke out in the hall and continued for several hours.”
A tragedy for Christians becomes occasion for solidarity
The devastating blaze Sept. 26 in Qaraqosh located in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province is the latest tragedy to befall Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority population suffering from sectarian violence.
Upon hearing about the tragedy, Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako traveled to the destroyed hall to minister to traumatized survivors. “I see solidarity among Iraqis, by everyone: Christians, Muslims, Kurds, Arabs who have expressed closeness, offered to take in those in need, who have sent aid,” he told AsiaNews by phone.
Celebratory gunfire and fireworks or flares often accompany weddings and other festivities in the Middle East; often many relatives and community members toast the newlyweds in extravagant party settings. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire. Flares may have set alight cladding, or a chandelier, initial reports said, leaving the building ablaze within two minutes.
Some 1,000 guests attended the celebration. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil confirmed to OSV News the newlyweds managed to escape the fire and are alive.
“They were about to do a slow dance and then they lit up this thing for the dance which caught fire,” one injured woman told the Kurdish news agency, Rudaw.
The fire was a ‘real carnage’
It was a “real carnage,” said Cardinal Sako, who also is Chaldean Catholic patriarch of Baghdad, describing the scene of destruction. “Nothing is left; everything has been destroyed; it is clear that the structure was not up to standard,” he said.
“The (civil) defense teams were unable to control it until late in the morning. The wall coverings and ceiling of the hall were made of highly flammable materials, which resulted in fire blocks falling very quickly from the ceiling of the hall onto the invitees,” Father Youkhana said.
The predominantly Christian area, found just outside of Mosul and some 335 km (205 miles) northwest of Baghdad is a place that saw tragic Christian persecution and is slowly beginning to get back on its feet.
Brutal attacks on Christians by so-called Islamic State militants in 2014 forced them to leave their homes in search of safety. Chaldean Catholics are the largest Christian denomination in Iraq. Christian numbers have dwindled to 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003, before the U.S.-led invasion. Iraq’s total population is more than 40 million.
The Hamdaniya district hospital was crowded with victims, while ambulances rushed to transport other injured people to hospitals in Erbil and Mosul to receive first aid on the night of Sept. 26. The speed caused one of the ambulances to overturn, the Archdiocese of Erbil said in a statement obtained by OSV News.
Tragedy recalls ISIS massacre
“The wounded are treated in hospitals in Mosul and Irbil” with the number of victims “very high,” Cardinal Sako underscored. “This is the first time that we have such a high number of deaths in our community. The (2010) massacre at the cathedral saw about 50 deaths; here, the number is twice (as big),” he said recalling an ISIS atrocity of killing over 50 parishioners and their pastors in an attack on Christians in Baghdad at the Our Lady of Salvation church.
The funerals of the victims brought together hundreds of family members, friends and neighbors on Sept. 27 in Hamdaniya. Dozens of coffins were carried by mourners to the local Christian cemetery.
“We were just there. We attended the funeral. It’s really tragic what we’ve seen,” Archbishop Warda told OSV News Sept. 27.
Entire families killed in the blaze
Some pictures from the ceremony showed coffins of entire families — mother, father and their children lined next to each other with pictures of killed family members on top of the wooden caskets.
“The first funeral was for the first 50 dead and tomorrow they have another session,” Archbishop Warda said. “Probably (there will be) more, because some of the injured are suffering from severe injuries and I think the numbers will raise,” he told OSV News.
“It’s very tragic, you could tell the sadness and you have no words to explain,” Archbishop Ward said. “So many churches already have announced that they would offer Masses and condolences and they try to help with prayers and support.”
“We need prayers,” he said after a pause.
What also is urgently needed are medicine and medical supplies. Victims need surgeries in private hospitals, due to the lack of government hospitals’ capabilities, as well as donations for treatment expenses.
“I met a priest, whose name is Petros, who lost at least 10 members of his family in the accident. His nephews died, (they were) still children, brothers. A tragedy,” Cardinal Sako said.
Cause of fire unknown
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,” Father Khoury told The Associated Press. “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
Ahmed Dubardani, a health official in the province, told the Rudaw news agency that many of those injured suffered serious burns. “The majority of them were completely burned and some others had 50 to 60% of their bodies burned,” Dubardani said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s interior and health officials to provide relief, his office said in a statement online.