A fire at a wedding in the largest Christian community in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain region claimed the lives of 120 people and injured more than 150.
Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil told Aleteia that the married couple were related to a local priest, Fr. Boutros Shito, who lost his parents, sister, sister-in-law and her son, in addition to another sister-in-law and others. Bishop Warda called it a “tragedy for Syriac Catholics.”
The wedding party, attended by about 1,000 people, quickly turned tragic as the bride and groom began to dance, and revelers began shooting flares into the air. While the use of “fireworks” is traditional in such settings, it is normally done outdoors.
Archimandrite Emmanual Youkhana, executive director of Christian Aid for Northern Iraq (CAPNI), said the area is inhabited by 5,000 Syriac Catholic families.
Cardinal Louis Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, visited the site of the fire Wednesday morning.
“Patriarchs, bishops, and priests from all faiths gathered today in Qaraqosh to bury those who had perished,” Archbishop Warda said in a statement. “No words can adequately describe the mourning of those bringing their loved ones to their final resting places in their ancient land. What was to be a time of joy has now turned a whole community into mourning and deep shock.”
“Many are going from house to house to comfort the mourning,” Archbishop Warda said.
The disaster happened overnight Tuesday in the city of Hamdaniya, also known as Baghdeda Qaraqosh, about 21 miles east of the city of Mosul.
“After the situation was under control, the bodies of the victims were removed and an attempt was made to treat the injured in the city, but due to the weak capabilities of hospitals and the financial and administrative corruption witnessed in the health sector in Iraq, residents were forced to transfer the injured to hospitals in other provinces based on weak capabilities and the lack of medicines, especially burn medicines,” said Fr. Youkhana.
The priest said that the lack of fire exits and the “weak capabilities” of firefighters contributed to the high casualties.
“Also, the covering of the walls and ceiling of the hall was made up of highly flammable materials, which resulted in fire blocks falling from the ceiling of the hall onto the invitees very quickly, and with the absence of emergency exits and the lack of availability of fire extinguishers,” he said.
Some people on the scene said that the loss of electricity soon after the fire started also contributed to the death toll.
“When the lights went out, people didn’t know where to go and started hitting the chairs and tables and started falling on the ground,” Ghazwan Ibrahim, a wedding guest, told The New York Times. “If there was no power outage, maybe half of them wouldn’t have gotten injured or died.”
Said Archbishop Warda, “In this tragedy it has brought the people of Iraq together again, with the Sunnis cancelling their celebrations of the birth of the Prophet Mohammad. We have statements of condolences and support from the Shia community, with the Governments of Iraq and Kurdistan announcing three days of mourning.”