BAGHDAD: It was a night of unimaginable horror as flames engulfed the intensive care unit of a Baghdad hospital — deafening screams, a patient jumping to his death to escape the inferno and relatives staying by their loved ones, refusing to abandon coronavirus patients tethered to ventilators.
Iraqi doctors, medical staff and rescue workers who witnessed the first moments of the catastrophic blaze described the scenes, many overcome by trauma and saying that night is forever seared in their memory.
The fire, which erupted late Saturday at the Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital’s coronavirus ward, raged for hours before claiming 82 lives and injuring 110 people. The death toll could still climb, with many of those hurt listed in serious condition.
Officials said the blaze was set off by exploding oxygen cylinders; days later, speculation has run rampant about what caused them to explode. Authorities have yet to issue the results of an official investigation.
Iraq, a nation toughened by decades of dictatorship, war and sectarian conflict — and now struggling to cope with the pandemic — remains in shock. Senior health officials have been fired or suspended amid allegations of negligence.
Sabah Samer, a doctor, and Yousif Hussein, a paramedic, were among the first to charge toward the blaze to try and help the victims. They say the hospital was a firetrap, especially the COVID-19 ward.
“The fire spread so quickly because of the combustible oxygen cylinders,” said Samer. “The walls of the rooms were padded with plastic and nylon, which fed the fire.”
He said he remembers the cylinders exploding one after another for almost every minute that he was inside, with flames shooting through the hospital windows. He said he counted at least 20 explosions.
Samer and other rescuers said it was impossible to reach many of the patients — they could hear screams and pleas for help from the second floor of the hospital.
One patient, a nurse with COVID-19, jumped through the window to his death, his body in flames. His charred remains were retrieved from the hospital courtyard later, Samer said.
Many have since pointed to blatant shortcomings in the hospital’s safety measures. Fire extinguishers did not work and emergency exits were inexplicably shut.
Dr. Kamal Al-Rubaie, 28, was on the hospital’s second floor ICU ward, filled with COVID-19 patients on oxygen when the fire started. He was about to offer condolences to the family after one of his patients had died when he saw the first spark.
He said he had feared the oxygen cylinders ever since his first rotation at the ward last October. Each room inside the respiratory care unit typically stored over a dozen cylinders, with each patient needing between two to three a day. There were 30 patients in the unit at the time, he said.
In the day-to day patient care, there weren’t enough hospital staff to check that each cylinder was functioning properly. The task often fell on untrained relatives of patients, Al-Rubaie said. Other doctors who have worked at the hospital said the same.