Three days of national mourning declared after blaze, which is believed to have started when an oxygen cylinder exploded.
At least 27 people were killed and 46 injured after a fire broke out on Sunday in a coronavirus intensive care unit in Baghdad, as Iraq faces a growing wave of COVID-19 cases.
The fire at the Ibn Khatib hospital in the Iraqi capital was sparked by an accident that caused an oxygen tank to explode, according to medical sources cited by the Reuters news agency and AFP.
The flames spread quickly, according to civil defence officials, as “the hospital had no fire protection system and false ceilings allowed the flames to spread to highly flammable products.”
Major General Kadhim Bohanm, the head of the Iraqi civil defence unit, said that 90 of a total of 120 patients and relatives had been rescued, state news agency INA quoted him as saying.
The fire has been put out, he added.
Iraq’s healthcare system, already ruined by decades of sanctions, war and neglect, has been stretched even further as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Moltyn, who is in Baghdad, said the death toll was likely to rise because many of the injured had severe burns.
The total number of people that have been infected with COVID-19 in Iraq is 102,528 including 15,217 deaths, the health ministry said on Saturday.
There were 30 patients and dozens of relatives in the intensive care unit – reserved for the capital’s most severe COVID cases – at the time the fire started.
No central oxygen supply
Iraqi hospitals do not usually have a central supply of oxygen and patients who need it are usually given a cylinder that is placed by their bed. Given staff shortages, relatives are sometimes required to change the cylinders, a doctor told Al Jazeera.
“The majority of the victims died because they had to be moved and were taken off ventilators, while the others were suffocated by the smoke,” the civil defence said.
The health ministry, which did not put out a statement until several hours after the fire, said it had “saved over 200 patients”, and promised an official toll of the dead and wounded later.
The fire triggered outrage on social media and the prime minister called for an investigation into the cause of the blaze.
“That is not enough for Iraqis,” Foltyn said. “We often hear the government promising investigations but we rarely see the results or the government officials responsible for what appears to be neglect or mismanagement being brought to account.
In a statement, the government’s human rights commission said the incident was “a crime against patients exhausted by COVID-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames”.
The commission called on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi to fire Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and “bring him to justice”. A hashtag demanding the health minister be sacked was trending on Twitter.
Kadhemi responded by calling for “an immediate investigation with those in charge at the ministry” and demanded that the “hospital director, head of security and the technical maintenance team be sent to the investigators and not be released until those at fault have been brought to justice”.
He also declared three days of national mourning.