At least 18 children 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 toll stands at 41 dead and 14 injured, Egypt’s Coptic Church said in a statement, citing health officials. Hospital documents show the children were between 3 and 16 years old.
The fire started around 9 am local time due to an electrical fault in an air conditioning unit on the second floor of the church, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said. The small church is located in the populous neighborhood of Imbaba.
Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by smoke inside church classrooms after the power failure, the ministry said in a Facebook post.
At least two officers and three members of the civil protection service were injured while responding to the fire, the ministry said.
Church officials also believe the fire was accidental, said Archpriest Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Church, adding that a priest was among the dead.
Historically, the Coptic community and churches in Egypt have been the target of religiously motivated violence and attacks, with persecution and discrimination on the rise since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
“We are in continuous contact with the local authorities and the Ministry of Health,” the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, said, according to the church spokesman.
Youssef Islam, 16, who works at a bakery next to the church, said the worst of the flames were on the fourth floor. He said he ran into the church and intended to get water from the third floor to help put out the flames upstairs.
But when he pushed his way through a door, he saw the bodies of children piled on top of each other. “A horrible scene,” she said. “This was probably the nursery.”
Mariam Malak, 23, told CNN she left the church shortly before the fire broke out.
“I left church after Sunday mass and was on my way to work when my mom called me. She thought I was caught on fire. I turned around and saw (the) church on fire. I missed it by just a few minutes,” she said.
“Everyone who was there went up to heaven, including our father Abdel Masih, who led the prayers this morning, and many of our family and friends. We are trying to identify everyone now.”
CNN also spoke with a family who was driving through the neighborhood looking for their cousin’s body after the fire died down.
“I can’t believe I won’t see you again, Irini. Why did you leave us so quickly? one of the women, Afaf, muttered to herself during the trip from one church to another. Afaf’s sister, Amany Marina, took her hand and prayed silently. Her cousin Amany wept quietly in the front seat as her husband, Sameh, continued to drive.
It was almost sunset when they arrived at the church in the 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 waiting for coffins to be brought from the hospital. The small coffins of children were carried over the crowd through the church door.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted his condolences to the victims of the fire.
“I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved to their Lord’s side in one of the houses of worship,” Sisi said.
The Egyptian president said that he is closely following the evolution of the “tragic accident” and that he has ordered state agencies to take the necessary measures to immediately deal with the tragedy and provide care to the injured.
Sisi has ordered the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to repair the church, the spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church announced, according to state news Ahramonline.
Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority Chairman Hesham El Swefy told Pope Tawadros in a phone call about Sisi’s instructions to rebuild the church, the state news agency said.
Egyptian footballer Mo Salah, who plays for Liverpool and is captain of the national team, also sent a message of support to those affected by the tragedy on Sunday, saying in a tweet: “My sincere condolences to the victims of the Church. of Abu Sefein, and my best wishes for a speedy recovery to all those injured.”
A preliminary investigation into the fire “indicated that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit,” Egyptian state 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 circuit in a power generator, according to Egyptian state news.
“The prosecution team examined all of the victims’ bodies and found no visible injuries on the deceased bodies, except for signs of suffocation,” El Sawy said.
The prosecution has questioned 14 of the injured and has ordered the Public Administration of Criminal Evidence to collect evidence at the scene, according to the aforementioned statement.
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