MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — As they watched the bride and groom start their slow dance, Faten Youssef imagined the future wedding of her son, seated next to her at a reception table. Within moments, however, disaster struck when an inferno erupted that would leave nearly 100 dead in the northern Iraqi wedding hall.
As the dance began, a ring of pyrotechnics machines on the floor released fountains of sparks into the air. As the music played, ceiling panels above the machines burst into flames.
The around 250 panicked guests in the the Haitham Royal Wedding Hall in the predominantly Christian Hamdaniya area stampeded for the exits as flaming decorations and pieces of ceiling rained down on them.
Authorities on Wednesday said around 100 people were killed, with the toll expected to rise with at least 100 injured, including many critically burned. Authorities said highly flammable building materials contributed to the disaster. The tragedy Tuesday night was the latest to hit Iraq’s Christian minority, which has dwindled to a fraction of its former size over the past decade in the face of militant attacks.
There was no official word on the cause of the blaze. But Kurdish television news channel Rudaw aired footage of the flames erupt from the ceiling over a chandelier as the spark machines jetted fireworks below.
“Flames started falling on us.” Youssef told The Associated Press. “Things were falling down and blocked the way to the exit.”
The guests, seated at long tables for the reception meal, rushed to the exits and the electricity went out. Youssef’s son tried to pull her to safety as she held her daughter’s hand. Youssef fell over onto the floor, right next to an elderly woman sprawled helplessly.
Youssef’s son tried to kick open a jammed exit door but couldn’t, she said. In the turmoil, her husband was missing. They managed to escape out another door, and once outside she found her husband had gotten out through the kitchen.
“It’s like we were brought back to life, I still don’t know how we survived,” Youssef said.
Another guest, Nabil Ibrahim, happened to be outside with one of his sons getting fresh air when the fire broke out. His wife, daughter and other son were still inside. He and his son rushed in, “and I saw people burning and screaming,” he recalled.
He and others tried to help people get out. He saw one unconscious woman being carried out, but later learned she died of suffocation. He eventually escaped through the kitchen and found the rest of his family outside.
With many trapped inside, someone brought a bulldozer and knocked a hole in the wedding hall wall, survivors said.
But by that time, “most of the people inside had died,” Ibrahim said. Fortunately, many of the guests’ children were outside playing in a nearby playground when the fire erupted. “If they’d all been inside, they would have died,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the bride and groom were among those hurt.
Ambulance sirens wailed for hours after the fire. Survivors arrived at local hospitals in bandages as staff worked to organize more oxygen cylinders. The hall was left scattered with torn clothes, children shoes and baby bottles, according to images on Rudaw and social media.
A Health Ministry official, speaking to the AP at midday Wednesday, put the death toll at 94 with around 100 people still receiving medical treatment. “The death toll is expected to rise as some are in critical condition,” he said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari earlier put the toll at 93 dead.
The official said 30 bodies have been identified by relatives, but the rest are too badly burned and will require DNA identification.
The disaster stunned Hamdaniya, a region of small towns with a mixture of Christians, Muslims and small minority religions in the Nineveh Plains outside the northern city of Mosul.
Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the wedding, said “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total population is more than 40 million.
Over the past two decades, Iraq’s Christian minority has been violently targeted by extremists first from al-Qaida and then the Islamic State militant group. Although the Nineveh Plains, their historic homeland, was wrested back from the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns are still mostly rubble and lack basic services, and many Christians have left for Europe, Australia or the United States.
Iraq’s prime minister ordered an investigation into the blaze. Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said the primary forensic report described a “lack of safety and security measures” at the venue. Iraqi security forces arrested nine workers at the venue, said Abdullah Al-Jabouri, a security official who heads the Nineveh Operations Command.
One of the owners of the venue, Chonny Suleiman Naboo, blamed the fire on an “electrical fault in the ceiling.” Speaking to the AP, he insisted the venue had “all the officials’ approvals” and that his brother and the hall’s supervisor would turn themselves in to authorities.
“We were attacked by residents and our cars were damaged because of what happened, and we’re worried that our homes could be attacked too,” Naboo said.
Civil defense officials quoted by the Iraqi News Agency said the wedding hall’s exterior was covered with a highly flammable, low-cost type of “sandwich panel” cladding that is illegal in the country. The materials “collapse within minutes when the fire breaks out,” civil defense said.
Experts say cheaper sandwich panels don’t always meet stricter safety standards, and are especially dangerous on buildings without any breaks to slow or halt a possible blaze. That includes the 2017 Grenfell Fire in London that killed 72 people in the greatest loss of life in a fire on British soil since World War II, as well as multiple high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates.
Similar panels have been blamed in several previous fires in Iraq. In July 2021, a blaze at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah that killed between 60 to 92 people was determined to have been fueled by sandwich panels.
Later Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered in a Christian cemetery in the area to attend funerals of some of the fire’s victims. Coffins draped in white cloth, some decorated with flowers, were carried one after another into the cemetery. Mourners wept and waved portraits of the dead..
“Sadness has prevailed the town, it’s as if there was a curfew imposed,” Youssef said. “The town has transformed from happiness to grief and morning.”
She said her family vows never again to attend wedding parties.
“My son told me that if he gets married, he will never have an event like this – just a church ceremony,” she said.
Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Kareem Chehayeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.