An early Sunday morning fire swept through a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, Egypt, killing 41 people, the Associated Press reported.
The fire was initially thought to stem from an electrical short circuit. Egypt’s Interior Ministry said it received a report of the blaze at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders found that it had broken out in an air conditioner on the building’s second floor, AP reported.
Many of the deaths were blamed on smoke inhalation or trampling among those fleeing the building. Among the dead reported was the parish priest, Abdul Masih Bakhit, and 10 children.
“Several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said,” according to AP. “‘Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,’ said a distraught witness.”
Sixteen people were reported injured.
There were conflicting accounts of a lagged response time on the part of emergency personnel. Sunday is the first day of the work week in predominantly Muslim Egypt, and streets in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba, where the church is, likely were clogged.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother, and an aunt were among those killed.
The Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, offered condolences to the families of the victims, according to a media statement.
“We are following with sorrow the tragic incident that occurred this morning in the Church of the Great Martyr Mercurius Abo Sefein in the Imbabah Airport area, north of Giza,” Pope Tawadros said. “As we offer our condolences to the victims’ families, we pray for the injured and wounded, trusting that the hand of God will have mercy on us all.”
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Tawadros to offer his condolences, according to the president’s office. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, also offered condolences to the head of the Coptic church, AP said.