HomeWorld NewsFire at Wedding Hall in Iraq Kills More Than 100 People

Fire at Wedding Hall in Iraq Kills More Than 100 People

A fire swept through a wedding hall late Tuesday in a predominantly Christian area of northern Iraq, killing at least 100 people and leaving more than 150 others injured with severe burns or difficulty breathing from smoke inhalation, according to Iraqi officials.

The fire broke out during a wedding near the village of Qara Qosh, in Hamdaniya district, southeast of the city of Mosul in the Nineveh Plain, a part of Iraq where Christians have lived for nearly 2,000 years, since the earliest days of Christianity.

The district’s mayor, Issam Behnam, said 85 people from Hamdaniya alone had died, including some of his own relatives.

Weddings in Iraq are often large and expensive celebrations even for those of modest means and regardless of whether the families are Muslim or Christian. Distant relatives come from far away to join local friends and neighbors to celebrate a couple’s marriage, and this event, in Al Haithem wedding hall, was typical. Survivors said that about 1,000 people were in the hall when the fire started.

Numerous eyewitnesses said that the fire began when the bride and groom began the traditional “slow dance,” when they take to the floor alone and twirl around the room in a romantic moment.

But as they danced, flares — similar to the sparklers sometimes used on birthday cakes, but much larger and set around the dance floor — were lit. As the flames and sparks leaped upward, they set on fire the decorations — thousands of tiny icicle-looking drops that appeared to be made of plastic — attached to the chandeliers and ceiling. As those burning pieces dropped onto guests, they not only burned people badly, but also ignited other flammable items such as tablecloths and napkins.

The electricity almost immediately turned off, for reasons that were not clear.

“When the lights went out, people didn’t know where to go and the burning pieces started hitting the chairs and tables and started falling on the ground,” said Ghazwan Ibrahim, one of the guests. “If there was no power outage, maybe half of them wouldn’t have gotten injured or died.”

Mr. Ibrahim was still searching for his wife, his son and his daughter, all of whom had attended the wedding with him. “I searched the hospitals in Mosul, I went to the forensic medicine center, and still I have not found them,” he said.

Another guest, Gorges Yohana, said the fire had moved with astonishing speed. “The roof caught fire within three seconds, and the fire was very big,” he said. “I helped, like, seven or eight people, but I couldn’t help more because I was choking from the smoke and my eyes were stinging and streaming.”

As the fire intensified, a bulldozer was used to knock openings in the wall, to allow people to escape. But the ensuing influx of oxygen may have fed the flames, which then seemed to engulf the entire building and to send smoke billowing into the air, as numerous photos and videos on social media indicate.

Some people were able to escape through the front door, but it was not clear whether there were other exits or whether they were open. Firefighters rushed to the scene, but some onlookers said that their hoses had seemed not to work at first.

There was speculation that flammable building materials in the hall had been a factor in the rapid spread of the blaze. After the flares — which local residents refer to as fireworks — were fired upward, pieces of the ceiling, or decorations attached to it, immediately began falling, some eyewitnesses said.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani of Iraq called for an investigation into the cause of the fire.

When northern Iraq was taken over by the Islamic State in 2014, Christians were driven out, after being forced to hand over their money, jewelry and household goods to the extremists. The exodus emptied the many Christian villages that speckle the Nineveh Plain, which include some of the faith’s oldest churches and shrines in Iraq. But Christians have slowly returned since the militants were driven out in 2017, and in the last two or three years, normal life in the area had resumed.

On Wednesday morning, as people picked through burned mobile phones, stray high-heeled shoes, charred furniture and other rubble at the hall, there was a sense of disbelief that after so many tragedies in this area, there had been such loss at a moment of celebration.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad and Ala Mahsoob from Mosul, Iraq.