BEIRUT, Lebanon — A fire that broke out in the coronavirus ward of a hospital in southern Iraq has killed at least 64 people and injured dozens more, according to health officials on Tuesday.
Flames swept through outbuildings of the al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiryah on Monday that had been set up to isolate those sick with COVID-19. Patients became trapped inside, with rescue teams struggling to reach them in time.
Photographs from the scene showed onlookers silhouetted by the flames that encompassed the buildings and lit up the night sky. Later, images showed rescue workers picking through the charred remains of bodies and hospital beds on the ward.
Officials told The Associated Press that the fire may have been caused by an electric short circuit, but did not provide more detail. Another health official in Dhi Qar Province, where Nasiriyah is located, said the fire erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded.
This is the second time a fire has ripped through the coronavirus ward of a hospital in Iraq. In April at least 82 people died at Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad after in a fire caused by a faulty oxygen tank.
Iraq's prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has ordered a full investigation into the causes of this latest fire in Nasiriyah. He also ordered the suspension and arrest of the health directors of Dhi Qar Province and al-Hussein hospital, as well as the city's director of civil defense.
Already ruined by decades of war, sanctions, mismanagement and corruption, the pandemic has further crippled Iraq's health care system, with acute shortages of staff and medical equipment. COVID-19 has killed nearly 17,600 people and infected more than 1.4 million in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University.
"Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father's body," one young man told Reuters as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital's yard.
In a show of anger and frustration, relatives of the dead and injured clashed with police outside the al-Hussein hospital, setting two vehicles on fire.