Officials: Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, injures 14

CAIRO (AP) — A fire engulfed a crowded Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshippers, including at least 10 children.

Several trapped worshipers jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein Church in an attempt to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Choking, choking, all dead,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.

Sixteen people were injured, including four police officers involved in the rescue effort.

The cause of the fire in the church in the popular district of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation reported an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.

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

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 reach them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know who owns this son or who owns this daughter. Is it possible?”

A hospital document obtained by The Associated Press indicates that the public hospital in Imbaba received 20 bodies, including 10 children. Three were siblings, 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old child, he added. The church’s bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.

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

Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt were among those killed. He said funerals for the dead would be held at two churches in the nearby neighborhood of Waraq.

Witness Emad Hanna said the church has two places used as a day care center and a church worker managed to get children out.

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

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

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

The church is located on a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most densely populated areas. Sunday is the first working day of the week and traffic jams clog the streets of Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.

Some relatives criticized what they said was a delay in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. “They came after people died… They came after the church was burned down,” shouted a woman standing in front of the burning church.

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar countered that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.

Fifteen fire engines were dispatched to the scene to douse the flames while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke by telephone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and other government officials also offered their condolences to the leader of the Coptic Church.

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

Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from hospital while the others were still being treated.

The Home Office said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders discovered the fire started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.

The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short on the blaze, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church. He said most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.

Later on Sunday, emergency services said they had successfully extinguished the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said surviving victims and families of the dead would receive payments as compensation and the government would rebuild the church.

Egypt’s Christians make up around 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination from the country’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. In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.

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