NASIRIYA, Iraq: At least 52 people were killed and 22 others injured in a fire likely caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a COVID-19 hospital in Iraq's southern city of Nassiriya, health officials and police said on Monday (Jul 12).
This is the second such deadly blaze in Iraq in three months.
The fire broke out at the Al-Hussein hospital late on Monday and was brought under control by local civil defence forces.
Haydar al-Zamili, the local health authority's spokesperson, said early Tuesday morning that 52 bodies were retrieved and another 22 people were wounded in the latest toll, after the fire had "ripped through the COVID-19 isolation ward".
"The victims died of burns and the search is continuing," he said, noting that there were fears victims could still be trapped inside the building. The ward had space for 70 beds.
As rescuers combed the smoke-charred building in search of more bodies, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held urgent meetings with senior ministers and ordered the suspension and arrest of health and civil defence managers in Nassiriya, his office said in a statement
The manager of the hospital was also suspended and ordered to be arrested, the statement added.
"The catastrophe of Al-Hussein Hospital is clear proof of the failure to protect the lives of Iraqis, and it is time to put an end to this," wrote Mohamed al-Halbousi, Iraq's Parliament Speaker, on Twitter.
Iraq's interior ministry said on Facebook late Monday that the fire tore through temporary structures erected next to the main building, but did not specify the cause.
Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq's healthcare system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed 17,592 people and infected more than 1.4 million.
"Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke," a Reuters reporter at the site of the fire said.
Health officials at Nassiriya 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.
"Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them," a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank explosion inside the hospital's COVID-19 wards was the likely cause of the fire, a policeman at the scene of the fire said.
"I heard a big explosion inside the coronavirus wards and then the fire had erupted very quickly," said Ali Muhsin, a hospital guard who was helping to carry wounded patients away from fires.
In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad killed at least 82 people and injured 110 others.
Health sources said earlier the death toll from Monday's fire could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were among the dead, they said.
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.
Dozens of young demonstrators protested outside the hospital after the deadly blaze.
"The (political) parties have burned us," they shouted in unison.
The lethal blaze also sparked furious calls on social media demanding action and the resignation of top officials.
Local authorities imposed a state of emergency in Dhi Qar governorate, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, and ordered doctors on leave to help treat the injured.