CAIRO — A fire ripped through a packed church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, killing at least 41 worshippers and injuring 14.
Witnesses said that several congregants trapped in the church jumped off upper floors to escape. “Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,” said a distraught witness, who only gave a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
At the time, the cause of the fire at the Abu Sefein mosque in Imbaba’s working class neighborhood was unknown. A police statement stated that an initial investigation led to the conclusion of an electrical short circuit.
Online footage showed furniture that had been set on fire, including chairs and tables made of wood. While firefighters put out the flames, others carried people to hospitals. The families waited to hear from relatives that were in the church.
Witnesses claimed that there were several children in the house when the fire started.
“There are children we didn’t know how to get to them,” said Abu Bishoy. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and a stampede as people attempted to flee the fire for causing the fatalities. It was among the deadliest fires in Egypt since recent years.
Witness Emad Hanna claimed that two areas were used by the church as daycare for children. One worker from the church was also able to bring many children out.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. We could see outside the smoke growing and that people wanted to leap from the top floor. … We found the children.”
Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s health ministry reported the casualty toll. According to the Coptic Church, the fire broke out during a worship service. It is found in the middle of one of Cairo’s most densely populated areas.
Officials stated that fifteen firefighting trucks were sent to the scene in order to extinguish the flames and ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic church.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi wrote on Facebook. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures, and immediately to deal with this accident and its effects.”
Khaled Abdel-Ghafar, Health Minister, stated in a statement two injured persons were released from hospital and 12 were being treated.
The Interior Ministry said it received a report on the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and that they found that the blaze broke out in an air conditioner in the building’s second floor.
This ministry oversees firefighters and police. It blamed an electric short-circuit as the cause of the large amounts smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors were dispatched to the church.
On Sunday night, the emergency services reported that they had put out the fire and that the prime minister along with other high ranking government officials visited the scene to inspect it.
Egypt’s Christians account for some 10% of the nation’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s blaze was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. Last March, at least twenty people died in a factory fire near Cairo.
Read More From Time