By Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Sayed Sheasha, Cairo, Aug 14 (Reuters) – An electrical fire swept through an Egyptian Coptic Christian church during Mass on Sunday, causing a stampede and killing at least 41 people, most of them children and many suffering from smoke inhalation.
The blaze started just before 9 a.m. in the Abu Sifin church in the city of Giza where about up to 1,000 people had gathered.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building, which had two day care facilities, when the fire broke out.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” said Abu Bishoy. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”
A hospital document obtained by The Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to the Imbaba public hospital. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old, it said. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals. It was not immediately known if children were among them.
The fire blocked an entrance to the church, causing the stampede, the two sources said, adding that most of those killed were children.
“People were gathering on the third and fourth floor, and we saw smoke coming from the second floor. People rushed to go down the stairs and started falling on top of each other,” said worshipper Yasir Munir.
“Then we heard a bang and sparks and fire coming out of the window,” he said, saying he and his daughter were on the ground floor and able to escape.
Electrical fires are not rare in Egypt. In late 2020, a fire at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients killed at least seven people.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said a forensic examination showed that the fire began in the second floor air conditioning as a result of an electrical malfunction.
Smoke inhalation was the main cause of death, it said. Families of those who died will receive 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,220), according to a cabinet statement.
“I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims that have passed on to be with their Lord in one of his houses of worship,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a tweet.
Maher Murad said he left his sister at the church after prayers.
“As soon as I got away from the church by only 10 metres, I heard the sound of screaming and saw thick smoke,” he said.
“After the firefighters doused the fire, I recognised my sister’s body. The bodies were all charred, and many of them are children who were in a nursery room in the church.”
A funeral was held for those killed in the fire late on Sunday at a cemetery in Giza.