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Iraq wedding fire: What we know about Qaraqosh blaze

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    16 hours ago

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Image source, EPA

A fire swept through a Christian wedding party in northern Iraq on Tuesday night, killing almost 100 people. Here is what we know.

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Where did it happen?

It ripped through al-Haitham Hall, a large event venue which is located on the outskirts of the northern town of Qaraqosh. Also known as Bakhdida, it is the main centre of al-Hamdaniya district and is about 15km (9 miles) south-east of the city of Mosul.

Qaraqosh was the biggest Christian town in Iraq – with a population of about 50,000, most of them Assyrians – before it was overrun by the Sunni Muslim jihadist group Islamic State (IS) in 2014. The town is still being rebuilt and about half of its residents are said to have returned.

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How did the blaze start?

Investigators are trying to establish the cause, but witnesses said the blaze started between 22:00 and 22:45 local time (19:00-19:45 GMT), when several fireworks were lit during the wedding.

“There were around 1,000 to 1,100 guests. The wedding was going well,” one man told Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish news agency.

“During the slow dance, one of the fireworks hit the roof. The ceiling caught fire suddenly and it spread everywhere because it was all made of sandwich panels, vinyl sheets and fabric.”

“Everything caught fire and started falling on people’s heads. Nobody was able to get out.”

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Rania Waad, a 17-year-old girl, who was burned on the hand, also told AFP news agency that while the bride and groom were dancing, “the fireworks started to climb to the ceiling [and] the whole hall went up in flames”.

One video posted online appeared to show four large fountain fireworks alight in the hall, as many people sit at long tables nearby and loud music plays. Moments later, a large ceiling decoration covered with tassels and lights is engulfed by fire and screams ring out.

Other footage, filmed from a different angle, purportedly shows the bride and groom and other guests dodging burning debris falling on to the dancefloor.

Shortly after that the power went off, making it difficult to see anything and get out.

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What do we know about the victims?

Nineveh’s health directorate announced on Thursday that 98 people had been confirmed dead.

Both bride and groom survived the fire, though both suffered minor burns and lost close relatives, a friend of the couple told AFP on Thursday.

“The bride lost her whole family – three brothers, all of her uncles and her young cousins. The groom lost his mother,” Jamil al-Jamil said.

The unnamed survivor interviewed by Rudaw said he had more than 20 relatives at the wedding and that some of them were killed.

“I have a friend whose whole family died. He, his children, his mother, his wife, everyone. Many entire families died,” he added. “It’s a human catastrophe, an extermination.”

People react following a fatal fire at a wedding celebration, in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq

Image source, Reuters

At a local mortuary, Mariam Khedr told Reuters news agency that she was waiting for officials to return the bodies of her 27-year-old daughter, Rana Yakoub, and her three grandchildren.

Another man who was burned on his hands and face said he managed to save his three-year-old grandson, but that his wife, Bashra Mansour, who was in her 50s, fell while trying to flee the blaze and died.

More than 100 people were injured by the fire, with many suffering serious burns.

“The majority of them were completely burned and some others had 50 to 60% of their bodies burned,” Nineveh province health official Ahmed Dubardani told Rudaw. “The majority of them were not in good condition.”

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What have investigators said?

Authorities said preliminary information also suggested that the fire was started by the fireworks.

The state-run Iraqi News Agency (INA) cited the Civil Defence Directorate as saying that the hall was covered with highly flammable metal composite panels, also known as sandwich panels, in violation of safety regulations.

“The fire led to the collapse of parts of the hall as a result of the use of highly flammable, low-cost building materials that collapse within minutes when the fire breaks out,” the directorate said.

Interior ministry spokesman Maj Gen Saad Maan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the fire spread very quickly and was exacerbated by the release of toxic gases linked to the combustion of the composite panels, which contained plastic.

Composite panels made from plastic and aluminium installed on the sides of London’s Grenfell Tower were blamed for helping flames to spread when a fire broke out in June 2017, resulting in 72 deaths.

British fire safety expert Arnold Tarling told the BBC: “There should be ‘firebreaks’ in the ceiling and floor. Materials shouldn’t be combustible, including wedding decorations.”

He added: “These sort of fires are all completely avoidable. People bring fireworks to such events, but nobody ever thinks about it.”

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How have authorities responded?

Security forces have arrested 10 of the venue’s staff, its owner and three people who were involved in setting off the fireworks, according to the interior ministry.

Prime Minister al-Sudani has said an investigative committee will “investigate and elucidate the accident’s circumstances, pinpoint the causes, and identify any areas of negligence”. He has demanded “the toughest punishments permitted by law for those responsible for negligence or failings that led to this tragic fire”.

He has also ordered all relevant authorities to intensify building inspections and verification of safety procedures at shopping centres, restaurant, event halls and hotels.

Safety standards are often poorly observed in Iraq, which has been plagued by decades of mismanagement and corruption.

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