Sunday 5 p.m.: Fire at Cairo Coptic church kills 41, including 15 children
CAIRO (AP) — 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 15 children.
Several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein 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.
Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen involved in the rescue effort.
The cause of the blaze at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short-circuit, according to a police statement.
Weeping families waited outside for word about relatives who were inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage from the scene circulated online showed burned 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, which had two day care facilities.
“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?”
A total of 15 children were killed in the fire, according to Copts United, a news website focusing on Christian news.
A list of victims obtained by The Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to the Imbaba public hospital. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old, it said. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals.
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.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church worker managed to get some children out of the church day care facilities.
“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,” Hanna said.
“We found the children,” some dead, some alive, he added.
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.
The church is located in 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 clog the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.