Cairo: A fire ripped through a packed Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshippers, including at least 10 children.
Several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sifin church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,’’ said a distraught witness, who only gave a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
The blaze started just before 9am in the Abu Sifin church in the city of Giza where 5,000 people had gathered.
The fire blocked an entrance to the church, causing the stampede, the two sources said, adding that most of those killed were children.
"People were gathering on the third and fourth floor, and we saw smoke coming from the second floor. People rushed to go down the stairs and started falling on top of each other," said worshipper Yasir Munir.
Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen involved in the rescue effort. The fire broke out as worshippers gathered for mass at the Abu Sifin church in the Imbaba neighbourhood, causing a stampede, Reuters quoted sources as saying.
The cause of the blaze in the church in the working-class neighbourhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short-circuit, according to a police statement. The fire started at 9am during the Sunday morning service. The church priest is among the dead.
Two officers and three members of the civil defence are among the dead. The Coptic church announced the death toll has now risen to 41. Earlier, it was reported that 35 people were killed.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the building when the fire broke out.
“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 one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Triplets amont dead
Mousa Ebrahim, 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 take place at two churches in the nearby Waraq neighborhood.
Witness Emad Hanna said the church includes two places used as a daycare for children, and that a church worker managed to get many children out.
“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people want to jump from the upper floor. ... We found the children.’’
Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s health ministry reported the casualty toll. The church said the fire broke out while a service was underway. The church is located in a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo.
Fifteen firefighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames while ambulances ferried casualties to nearby hospitals, officials said.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi has instructed all relevant bodies to deal with the fire, and ordered providing the necessary healthcare to the injured in Al Muneirah church.
Al Sissi spoke by phone with the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,’’ Al 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.’’
Copts comprise about 10% of Egypt’s primarily Muslim population.
Governor of Giza ordered an urgent aid of 50,000 pounds to each of the deceased’s family and 10,000 pounds to each family of the injured.
It is reported that the congregation had just finished praying when the fire broke out. Egypt’s Public Prosecutor has ordered a team of experts be formed to investigate causes of the church fire.
The governor of Egypt visited the injured people in hospital. -- With inputs from AP & Reuters