BAGHDAD — The death toll at a southern Iraqi hospital treating Covid patients rose to at least 92 people on Tuesday, as witnesses described chaotic scenes of volunteers desperately trying to pry open a padlocked front door, malfunctioning fire extinguishers, and fire trucks running out of water as the ward burned.
The fast-spreading blaze tore through the new isolation ward at the Imam Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriya late Monday night into early Tuesday. It was the second such tragedy in the country in less than three months, after a similar fire broke out in April in a Baghdad coronavirus hospital and killed at least 82 people.
“Most of the patients were breathing through ventilators and unable to move,” said Dr. Aws Adel, a health official for the province of Dhi Qar which includes Nasiriya. “Most of the hospital staff were able to escape.”
The lack of precautions at the hospital, the speed at which the fire spread, and the feeble ability to fight it reflected a country in deep crisis after years of corruption and government mismanagement have left basic government services barely functioning.
The fire was sparked by an electrical short in a ventilator that resulted in oxygen canisters exploding, said Brig. Gen. Fouad Kareem Abdullah, a provincial police spokesman.
The Iraqi civil defense chief, Maj. Gen. Kathem Bohan, said the building that housed the three-month-old coronavirus isolation ward next to the main hospital had been constructed from flammable materials. The roof appeared to have melted along with sandwich board panels with foam cores that made up much of the construction. Other officials have said oxygen is stored haphazardly at almost all Iraqi hospitals.
Provincial health officials said that around 70 patients and at least as many of their relatives were in the ward when the fire broke out. While normal coronavirus precautions ban visitors from isolation wards, a lack of nursing and other hospital staff in Iraq mean that patients rely on family members to take care of them.
Ahmed Sachet al-Ghizzi, 21, said he was on a bridge near the hospital late Monday night when he saw smoke and flames. He rode there on his motorbike and tried to open the front door of the ward so people could escape, but found it locked.
He said he and other volunteers, many of them young men who are part of an active anti-government protest movement in Nasiriya, ran to the back door but couldn’t enter because of the flames and smoke.
“It was open, but it was a narrow door and people were pushing to get out,” he said. Nurses rushed to try to put out the flames with portable fire extinguishers, but almost none of them were working, he added.
Mr. al-Ghizzi said he and others broke the front door down to allow more people to flee while desperate relatives who had heard about the fire tried to rush into the burning building.
“People were shouting and crying: ‘I want my dad! I’m looking for my brother! Where is my mom?’” he said. “We made a human chain to keep them out so we could try to rescue some of the wounded.”
Salam al-Ghizzi, another volunteer, said that when he arrived at the hospital to try to help, he found the front door padlocked with chains. He said the ceiling began to collapse while flames engulfed the door, and no one could get in or out.
“We saw the firefighting vehicles had run out of water and there was no emergency water source in the hospital,” he said. “We could hear people screaming, saying they needed help, that their mothers or fathers were inside. But we could not help them.”
The dead were almost all patients, family members caring for them, or others who tried to rescue them, according to provincial health officials in Nasiriya. They said two health care workers were killed but other staff members managed to flee before the fire spread and the ceiling of the prefabricated building collapsed.
Dr. Adel said the dead included at least one volunteer, an engineer, who rushed into the burning building to try to help.
“What happened yesterday in Nasiriya represents a deep wound in the conscience of all Iraqis,” Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told a special session of parliament on Tuesday. He ordered the detention of the provincial health director, the civil defense chief and the hospital director.
“If this disaster happened in any other country, it would be reason for the resignation of the entire government,” the parliamentary health and environment committee said in a statement, adding that the repeated tragedies show that Iraqi lives are not valued.
During the day on Tuesday, workers tried to retrieve the remains of victims from under the charred ruins of the three-month-old facility. At least 22 bodies were so badly burned that health officials were using DNA tests to identify them.
Iraq is in the midst of a third wave of coronavirus infections. Last week, the country reached a high of 9,000 new cases a day with more than 17,000 dead since the pandemic began, according to the health ministry. The infection and death rates are believed to be significantly undercounted because many people believe it is safer to be treated at home.
The fire in April at a coronavirus hospital in the capital, Baghdad, was believed to have been caused by a spark igniting improperly stored oxygen canisters. Some of the patients hooked up to ventilators were burned alive in their beds along with visiting relatives who would not leave them.
The hospital had no working fire alarm and no sprinkler system and Iraq’s health minister at the time resigned in response.
Falih Hassan, Awadh al-Taiee and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.