At least 18 children have died in a fire that killed dozens of worshipers gathered for Sunday morning mass at a church in Giza, Greater Cairo, according to hospital documents seen by CNN.
The death toll stands at 41 and 14 injured, the Egyptian Coptic Church said in a statement, citing health officials. Hospital documents show the children were between the ages of 3 and 16.
The fire started around 9 a.m. local time due to a power failure in an air conditioning unit on the second floor of the church, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said. The small church is located in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba.
Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by smoke inside church classrooms after the power outage, the ministry said in a Facebook post.
At least two officers and three members of the civil protection services were injured in response to the fire, the ministry said.
Church officials also believe the fire was accidental, Coptic Church spokesman Archpriest Moussa Ibrahim said, adding that a priest was among those killed.
Egypt’s Coptic community and churches have always been the target of religiously motivated violence and attacks, with persecution and discrimination increasing since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
“We are in constant contact with local authorities and the Ministry of Health,” Coptic Church leader Pope Tawadros II said, according to the church spokesman.
Youssef Islam, 16, who works at a bakery next to the church, said the worst flames were on the fourth floor. He said he ran into the church and intended to draw water from the third floor to help put out the flames on the upper floor.
But when he pushed his way through a door, he saw bodies of children piled on top of each other. “A horrible scene,” he said. “It was probably the nursery.”
Mariam Malak, 23, told CNN she left the church shortly before the fire broke out.
“I left the church after Sunday mass and was on my way to work when my mother called me. She thought I was caught in the fire. I turned around and saw (the) church in flames. I missed it by just a few minutes,” she said.
“All who were there ascended to heaven, including our father Abdel Masih, who led the prayers this morning and many of our families and friends. We are trying to identify everyone now.
CNN also spoke to a family who were driving through the neighborhood looking for their cousin’s body after the fire was over.
“I can’t believe I won’t see you again, Irini. Why did you leave us so soon? one of the women, Afaf, whispered to herself as we walked from one church to the next. Afaf’s sister, Amany Marina, held his hand and prayed silently. Their cousin Amany cried silently in the front seat as her husband, Sameh, continued to drive.
It was almost sunset when they arrived at the church in Al-Warraq neighborhood where the prayer for the dead was taking place. The three women held hands as they walked through security.
Hundreds of mourners flocked to the church as they waited for the coffins to be brought from the hospital. Small children’s coffins were carried out to the crowd through the church door.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi tweeted his condolences to the victims of the fire.
“I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved alongside their Lord in one of the places of worship,” Sissi said.
Egypt’s president said he was closely following the development of the “tragic accident” and had ordered state agencies to take the necessary measures to immediately deal with the tragedy and provide care to the victims. wounded.
Sisi ordered the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to repair the church, the Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman said, according to state news Ahramonline.
Chairman of the Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority, Hesham El Swefy, briefed Pope Tawadros in a phone call on Sisi’s instructions to rebuild the church, the state news agency said.
Egyptian football player Mo Salah, who plays for Liverpool and captains the national team, also sent a message of support to those affected by the tragedy on Sunday, saying in a tweet: “My heartfelt condolences to the victims of the Abu Sefein Church, and my best wishes for a speedy recovery to all injured.
A preliminary investigation into the fire “indicated that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit”, Egyptian media reported. citing a statement by Attorney General Hamada El Sawy.
El Sawy visited the site and said eyewitnesses told his team that the fire was caused by an electrical short in a generator, according to Egyptian state information.
“The prosecution team examined all the bodies of the victims and found no visible injuries on the deceased bodies except for signs of suffocation,” El Sawy said.
The public prosecutor’s office interviewed 14 of the injured and ordered the Public Criminal Evidence Administration to collect evidence from the scene, according to the quoted statement.