Officials: Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, hurts 14

CAIRO (AP) – A fire ripped 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 many trapped congregants jumped from the upper floors to escape. “Suffocation, suffocation, they all died,” said one distraught witness, who gave only the partial name of Abu Bishoy.

The cause of the fire, which broke out at the Abu Sayfin Church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, was not immediately known. According to a police statement, preliminary investigation revealed an electrical short circuit.

Footage from the scene circulated online showed charred furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen dousing the fire while some took the victims to ambulances. Families were waiting for word from relatives who were in the church.

Witnesses said there were many children in the building when the fire broke out.

“There are children we didn’t know how to approach,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son or whose daughter this is. Is this possible?”

The country’s health minister blamed smoke and stampedes for the fatal accident as people tried to flee the blaze. It was the worst fire disaster in Egypt in recent years.

Witness Imad Hanna said the church included two places used as a daycare for children, and a church employee managed to get several children out.

“We went up and found people dead. And we started to see from outside that the smoke was getting bigger and people wanted to jump from the upper floor. … We found the children.

The death toll was reported by Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s health ministry. The church said the fire broke out during services. The church is located on a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo.

As many as 15 fire engines were rushed to the spot to douse the fire, while ambulances took the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed his condolences by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, the president’s office said. Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyib also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.

El-Sisi wrote on Facebook, “I am closely monitoring the developments of this tragic accident. “I have directed all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and deal with this accident and its consequences immediately.”

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were released from hospital, while 12 others were being treated.

The Home Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9 am local time and found the fire started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.

The ministry, which oversees the police and fire brigade, blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit, which caused a huge plume of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada al-Sawi, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church.

Later on Sunday, emergency services said they had managed to put out the fire and the Prime Minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the scene.

Christians in Egypt make up 10% of the country’s population of more than 103 million and have complained of discrimination from the country’s Muslim majority.

Sunday’s blaze was one of the worst fire disasters in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and firefighting regulations are not properly enforced. At least 20 people were killed and 24 injured in a fire at a garment factory near Cairo in March last year.

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