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A fire swept through a packed church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, killing at least 41 worshipers and injuring 14.
The church quickly filled with thick black smoke, and witnesses said several trapped worshipers jumped from upper floors to escape. “Asphyxiation, asphyxiation, all of them dead,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
The cause of the fire at the Abu Sefein church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short, according to a police statement.
Images of the scene that circulated online showed burned furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances. The families waited for news about the relatives who were inside the church.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the building when the fire broke out.
“There are children that we didn’t know how to reach them,” said Abu Bishoy. “And we don’t know whose son this is or whose daughter this is. It’s possible?”
Causing the Deaths
The country’s health minister blamed smoke and a stampede as people tried to flee the fire for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Witness Emad Hanna said that the church includes two places used as day care for children, and that a church worker managed to remove many children.
“We went upstairs and found dead people. And we began to see from outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people wanted to jump from the top floor. … We found the children.”
Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s health ministry reported the number of victims. The church said the fire broke out while a service was in progress. The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo.
Fifteen firefighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to douse the flames while ambulances transported victims to nearby hospitals, authorities said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also offered his condolences to the leader of the Coptic church.
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured had been discharged from a hospital while 12 others were still being treated.
The Interior Ministry said it received a report about the fire at 9 a.m. local time and discovered that the fire broke out in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and fire services, blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors has been sent to the church.
Later on Sunday, emergency services said they had managed to put out the fire and the prime minister and other top government officials arrived to inspect the scene.
Egypt’s Christians make up about 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety regulations and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 more.