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At least 41 worshippers were killed and 14 injured when a fire ripped through a crowded church during morning services in the Egyptian capital on Sunday.
The church soon filled with thick black smoke, and witnesses said several trapped worshippers jumped from upstairs to escape. “Asphyxiation, suffocation, they all died,” said a distraught witness, who gave only a partial name, Abu Bishoi.
The cause of the fire in the Abu Sefin church in the working-class Imbaba neighborhood is unclear. Preliminary investigations point to an electrical short, according to a police statement.
Pictures of the scene circulating online showed furniture including wooden tables and chairs being burned. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze, while others carried victims into ambulances. The family awaits news about relatives in the church.
Witnesses said there were many children in the building when the fire broke out.
“There are kids we don’t know how to contact them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son or whose daughter this is. Is it possible?”
The country’s health minister blamed the deaths on smoke and stampedes as people tried to flee the fires. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Witness Emard Hanna said the church included two places used as daycares for children, and a church worker managed to remove many of the children.
“We went upstairs and found dead people. We started to see the smoke from the outside, people wanting to jump off the top floor. … We found the kids.”
The Coptic Church in Egypt and the country’s Ministry of Health reported the number of victims. The church said the fire broke out while the service was in progress. The church is located on a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
Authorities said 15 fire engines were dispatched to the scene to extinguish the blaze and ambulances transported victims to a nearby hospital.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered his condolences by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, the presidential office said. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Tayeb, also offered his condolences to the Coptic church leaders.
Health Minister Khalid Abdul-Ghaafar said in a statement that two of the wounded have been discharged and 12 others are still receiving treatment.
The Home Office said it received reports of a fire at 9 a.m. local time and found the fire started on an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The department overseeing the police and fire services blamed the fire on an electrical short that produced a lot of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, has ordered an investigation and has dispatched a team of prosecutors to the church.
Late on Sunday, emergency services said they had successfully extinguished the blaze, and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived at the scene to check.
Egypt’s Christians, which make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of more than 103 million, have long complained of discrimination against the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years, where safety and fire regulations were poorly enforced. Last March, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.