Officials: A fire in a Coptic church in Cairo kills 41 people and injures 14 others

A fire broke out in a crowded Coptic Orthodox church during morning prayers in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 10 children. 14 people were injured.

Witnesses said that many of the trapped worshipers jumped from the upper floors of the Church of the Martyr Abu Sefein in an attempt to escape the intense flames. “Suffocation, suffocation, they all died,” said a stunned witness, only mentioning a partial name, Abu Bishoy.

It was not immediately known what caused the fire to break out in the church located in the Imbaba neighborhood, which is inhabited by the working class. A preliminary investigation indicated a short circuit, according to a police statement.

Footage of the scene circulating online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the flames, while others took the victims to ambulances. Weeping families waited outside for their relatives, who were still inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken.

Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building when the fire broke out.

“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to,” Abu Bishoy said. We do not know this son or daughter. Is this possible?”

A hospital document obtained by The Associated Press reported that Imbaba General Hospital received 20 bodies, including 10 children. She added that she has three siblings, twins aged 5 and 3. The church’s bishop, Abdel Masih Bakhit, was among those in the hospital mortuary.

Twenty-one bodies were transferred to other hospitals. It was not immediately known if there were any children among them.

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The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and the stampede as people tried to escape the blazes for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.

Witness Imad Hanna said that the church includes two places that are used as day care for the children, and that one of the church workers managed to take out some of the children.

“We went upstairs and found dead people. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was increasing, and people wanted to jump from the top floor,” Hanna said.

“We found the children,” he said, “some dead and some alive.”

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Ministry of Health reported the death toll.

The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week, and traffic jams block the streets of Imbama and its surroundings in the morning.

Some relatives criticized what they said was the delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. A woman standing outside the burning church said: “They came after the people died.. They came after the church was burnt.”

Health Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar responded that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.

Officials said 15 fire engines were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames, while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi spoke by phone with the second Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, according to what the president’s office announced. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, and other government officials also offered their condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.

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“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” Sisi wrote on Facebook. I directed all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this incident and its effects.

Health Minister Abdel Ghaffar said in a statement that two of the injured have been discharged from the hospital, while 12 others are still receiving treatment.

The Ministry of Interior said it received a report of the fire at 9 am local time, and paramedics found that the fire broke out in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.

The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed a short circuit for the fire, which sent huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s public prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors has been sent to the church.

Later on Sunday, emergency services said they were able to put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that surviving victims and families of the dead will receive compensation and that the government will rebuild the church as soon as possible.

Christians in Egypt make up about 10% of the country’s population of 103 million and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.

The Sunday fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire in a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.

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