KARO — A fire tore through a crowded Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 10 children.
Several trapped congregants jumped from the top floors of Martyr Abu Sefein Church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Suffocation, suffocation, 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.
The cause of the fire at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation indicated an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
Crying families waited outside for news of relatives still at church and nearby hospitals where the victims were being taken. Images 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 in the four-storey building, which housed two nurseries, when the fire broke out.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”
A hospital document obtained by The Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to Imbaba Public Hospital. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among those killed in the hospital’s morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals. It was not immediately known whether any children were involved.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that the dead included 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church employee managed to get some children out of church daycare.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people want to jump from the top floor,” Hanna said.
“We found the children,” some dead, some alive, he added.
The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and stampede as people tried to flee the fire before causing the fatalities. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
The church stands in a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most populous neighborhoods. Sunday is the first working day of the week and in the morning traffic jams clog the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas.
Some family members criticized what they believed were delays in the arrival of ambulances and firefighters. “They came after people died. … They came after the church burned down,” shouted a woman standing outside the smoldering church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar replied that the first ambulance arrived two minutes after the fire was reported.
Fifteen fire vehicles were sent to the scene to extinguish the flames, while ambulances took victims to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to express his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also expressed 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 have instructed all relevant government agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and to address this accident and its consequences immediately.”
Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the injured were released from hospital while the others were still being treated.
The interior ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9:00 a.m. local time, and first responders found the fire had broken out in an air conditioner on the building’s second floor.
The ministry, which oversees the police and fire department, blames the fire on an electrical short circuit, which caused huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was sent to the church. He said most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
On Sunday afternoon, emergency services said they had managed to put out the blaze 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.
By late afternoon, coffins of the dead were transferred into ambulances for pre-funeral prayers at two churches in the nearby Waraq district, as crying women lined their path.
The Christians in Egypt make up about 10% of the country’s more than 103 million inhabitants and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fires in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly adhered to. In March last year, a fire at a clothing factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24.