CAIRO (AP) — A fire engulfed a crowded church during morning services in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, killing at least 41 worshipers and injuring 14.
The church quickly filled with thick black smoke and witnesses said several trapped worshipers jumped from upper floors to escape. “Choking, choking, all dead,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoy.
The cause of the fire at the Abu Sefein church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation reported an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
Footage of the scene circulated online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances. The families were waiting for news of their loved ones who were inside the church.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the building when the fire broke out.
“There are children we didn’t know how to reach,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know who owns this son or who owns this daughter. Is it possible?”
The country’s health minister blamed smoke and a stampede as people tried to flee the blaze for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Witness Emad Hanna said the church has two places used as a day care center for children and a church worker managed to get many children out.
“We went up and found dead people. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was growing and people wanted to jump from the upper floor. … We found the children.
Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s health ministry have reported the death toll. The church said the fire started while a service was underway. The church is located on a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most densely populated areas.
Fifteen fire engines were dispatched to the scene to douse the flames while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke by telephone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also offered his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.
“I am closely following the evolution of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi wrote on Facebook. “I have ordered all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this accident and its effects.”
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from hospital while 12 others were still being treated.
The Interior Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time and found the fire started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short on the blaze, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church.
Later on Sunday, emergency services said they had successfully extinguished the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site.
Egypt’s Christians make up around 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination from the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s blaze was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.