BAGHDAD — A fire sparked by an exploding oxygen cylinder killed at least 82 people, most of them Covid-19 patients and their relatives, at a Baghdad hospital late Saturday, a devastating example of the pandemic’s impact on a country riddled with corruption and a legacy of decrepit infrastructure.
The hospital, a facility dedicated to Covid-19 patients in one of Baghdad’s poorer neighborhoods, had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system or fire hoses, said Maj. Gen. Khadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq’s civil defense forces. The fire spread quickly because of flammable material used in false ceilings in the intensive care ward, he added.
“If there had been smoke detectors, the situation would have been totally different,” General Bohan told the state-run Iraqiya TV.
Doctors and rescuers described a chaotic scene at the hospital, crowded with relatives of patients despite what was supposed to be a ban on most visitors to avoid the spread of infection. Because of a lack of nursing staff, Iraqi hospitals, even in Covid wards, require a relative to help look after a patient.
The deadly fire struck as the world struggled with the biggest new weekly coronavirus case total yet, in a pandemic that has stretched well into its second year. Even as wealthier countries are rapidly rolling out vaccines, more countries than ever are struggling with overwhelming caseloads and mounting death tolls.
Iraq is battling an intense new wave of coronavirus infections. On Sunday, the country reported 6,034 new coronavirus cases and 40 deaths, a figure that excludes those who died in the fire. Last week, the country of almost 40 million topped more than one million cases since the pandemic began last year.
Despite being one of the world’s biggest oil producers, Iraq is also suffering a financial crisis that economists attribute to decades of mismanagement and dysfunctional institutions. Its health care system was devastated by more than a decade of U.S.-led international sanctions against Saddam Hussein starting in the 1990s.
Since 2003, the government has spent billions of dollars to try to restore the health care infrastructure, but the system remains dysfunctional: Relatives must provide oxygen and medication in many hospitals.
Strained by huge patient counts, and heavy energy use amid a need for more oxygen supplies and ventilators, hospitals have been struck by an increasing number of fires like the one in Baghdad.
A European Commission report early this year warned of the dangers of hospital fires because of increased oxygen use. It reported almost 70 people were killed in hospital fires around the world related to supplemental oxygen last year, including 10 in Romania. A more recent fire in April in Romania, where intensive care units have also been overwhelmed, killed three patients.
An Iraqi health ministry spokesman said the Ibn al-Khatib hospital, where the fire broke out, was originally built in the 1950s and had been renovated last year to refit it for treating Covid patients. He declined to comment on why the renovation did not include smoke detectors or a sprinkler system, saying that was now under investigation.
Among the dead were some older patients on ventilators who could not move from their beds when the fire started, officials said.
One Facebook notice listed five members of one family who died in the fire: a tribal sheikh being treated for Covid, his wife and their three sons.
“It was a horrible scene,” said Dr. Waad Adnan, a hospital resident who was in the physicians’ quarters next to the hospital when the fire started. “There was the sound of explosions and then huge balls of fire,” he added.
Dr. Adnan, who spoke outside the hospital, said he saw patients and their relatives breaking windows and throwing themselves from the second floor to escape the blaze.
He said the fire was believed to have started when an oxygen cylinder caught fire and then exploded.
“The hospital staff did their best to turn off the central oxygen, but the cylinders began exploding,” he said.
A neighborhood tuk-tuk driver, Ahmed Hassan, said he and other drivers rushed to the hospital to try to help a friend’s aunt who was being treated for Covid, but when they arrived, they found she had already died.
“I couldn’t see anything but heavy smoke and people running and shouting and charred bodies,” said Mr. Hassan, 19. “I heard screaming and saw smoke and people cursing the hospital staff for not helping the patients.”
He said he and other young men spent an hour running in and out of the hospital trying to rescue patients while the fire burned. Some were able to walk, while others, he said, he pulled from their beds.
“I found one of the people who was not able to move and I yelled, ‘This man is still alive, we can save him!’” he said. The older man clung to him and asked him not to leave him. He said, “‘Please, this is my phone. If I die tell my family I forgive them for everything.’”
The man died on Sunday.
Mr. Hassan said he helped rescue a nurse as well as other patients and their relatives. Iraq’s pharmaceutical association said at least one pharmacist died in the blaze.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi called the fire a crime and ordered an investigation within 24 hours into possible negligence at the hospital.
He ordered the detention for questioning of the health director for the Rasfah area of Baghdad, where the hospital is. The hospital’s director and its head of engineering and maintenance were also ordered detained.
President Barham Salih said the tragedy was a “result of the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement,” in a post on Twitter.
“Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent.”
Nermeen al-Mufti and Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting.