At least 41 people have been killed in a fire at an Iraqi hospital’s coronavirus isolation ward, the second such deadly inferno in a COVID-19 unit in three months, a health official said.
The fire broke out at the Al-Hussein hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya late on Monday and was still continuing, according to an AFP correspondent.
Haydar al-Zamili, a spokesman for the local health authorities, told AFP that the “fire … ripped through the COVID isolation ward”.
“The victims died of burns and the search is continuing,” Zamili said, noting that there were fears victims could still be trapped inside the building. The ward itself has space for 60 patients.
Health sources told Reuters the death toll could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were among the dead, they said.
Sixteen people have been rescued so far, a medical source said late on Monday.
Health officials at Nasiriya said search operations at the al-Hussain coronavirus hospital were continuing after the fire was brought under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the burnt wards.
Videos shared online showed thick clouds of smoke billowing from the Al-Hussein hospital.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Baghdad, said civil defence teams have been able to contain the fire at the hospital, citing the Iraqi health authority.
“Many people have taken to the streets in Nasiriya and in front of the hospital,” said Abdelwahed, who added that the manager of the hospital has resigned.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi also declared a state of emergency in the governorate of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriya is located, Abdelwahed reported.
In a tweet, al-Kadhimi said that his office was holding an emergency meeting to discuss “the causes and repercussions” of the incident.
Angry relatives gathered in front of the hospital and clashed with police, setting fire to two police vehicles, a Reuters witness said.
“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father’s body,” said one young man as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital’s yard.
Earlier on Monday, a minor fire broke out at the health ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad, but it was quickly contained with no fatalities recorded.
The blaze at the hospital is the second such tragedy this year.
In April, a fire at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders killed 82 people and injured 110 others.
Many of the victims were on respirators being treated for COVID-19 and were burned or suffocated in the resulting inferno that spread rapidly through the hospital, where dozens of relatives were visiting patients in the intensive care unit.
The then-health minister, Hassan al-Tamimi, resigned after the April fire.
Iraq has recorded more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 17,000 deaths.