A fire swept through a wedding hall late Tuesday in a predominantly Christian area of northern Iraq, killing at least 100 people and leaving more than 150 others injured with severe burns or difficulty breathing from smoke inhalation, according to Iraqi officials.
The fire broke out during a wedding in the district of Hamdaniya, southeast of the city of Mosul in the Nineveh Plain, a part of Iraq where Christians have lived for many centuries. The district’s mayor, Issam Behnam, said 85 people from Hamdaniya alone had died, including some of his own relatives.
Weddings in the area typically attract relatives, some who travel long distances, and survivors said about 1,000 people had been in Al Haithem wedding hall when the fire started. Numerous eyewitnesses said flares had been fired toward the ceiling as the bride and groom danced — a wedding tradition, though the flares are supposed to be used outside.
Then, they said, the voluminous bunting on the ceiling quickly caught fire, and the electricity almost immediately turned off, for reasons that were not clear.
“When the lights went out, people didn’t know where to go and started hitting the chairs and tables and started falling on the ground,” said Ghazwan Ibrahim, one of the wedding guests. “If there was no power outage, maybe half of them wouldn’t have gotten injured or died.”
Mr. Ibrahim was still searching for his wife, his son and his daughter, all of whom had attended the wedding with him. “I searched the hospitals in Mosul, I went to the forensic medicine center, and still I have not found them,” he said.
Another guest, Gorges Yohana, said the fire had moved with astonishing speed. “The roof caught fire within three seconds, and the fire was very big,” he said. “I helped, like, seven or eight people, but I couldn’t help more because I was choking from the smoke and my eyes were stinging and streaming.”
As the fire intensified, a bulldozer was used to knock openings in the wall, to allow people to escape. But the ensuing influx of oxygen may have fed the flames, which then seemed to engulf the entire building and send smoke billowing into the air, numerous photos and videos on social media indicate.
Some people were able to escape through the front door, but it was not clear whether there were other exits or whether they were open. Firefighters rushed to the scene, but some onlookers said their hoses seemed not to work at first.
Besides the use of flares — or fireworks, as local residents refer to them — there was speculation that flammable building materials in the hall had been a factor in the rapid spread of the blaze. After the flares were fired upward at the ceiling, some eyewitnesses said, pieces of the ceiling, or decorations attached to it, immediately began falling.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani called for an investigation into the cause of the fire.
On Wednesday morning, as people picked through burned mobile phones, stray high-heeled shoes, charred furniture and other rubble, there was a sense of disbelief that after so many tragedies in this area, there had been such loss at a moment of celebration.
After Northern Iraq was taken over by the Islamic State in 2014, Christians were driven out, after being forced to hand over their money, jewelry and household goods to the extremists. The exodus emptied the many Christian villages that speckle the Nineveh Plain, which include some of the faith’s oldest churches and shrines in Iraq. But Christians have slowly returned since the militants were driven out in 2017, and in the last two or three years, normal life in the area had resumed.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad and Ala Mahsoob from Mosul, Iraq.