Another 110 people were injured in the fire in Ibn al-Khatib hospital, according to the ministry’s spokesman, Maj. General Khaled Al-Muhanna.
According to two hospital health officials, the fire is said to have started after the explosion of oxygen tanks.
Murtadha Riyadh’s grandmother and aunt were both in intensive care on the second floor of the hospital when the fire broke out.
He was nearby picking up medicine for his grandmother when he suddenly heard explosions, he told CNN. “I ran back to the hospital. I called them to check on them. They told me, ‘Don’t come up, we’re being evacuated’ but they couldn’t make it.”
“I rushed to the first floor (of the hospital) to help, but I couldn’t, I suffocated. Then fire broke out,” said Riyadh.
Minutes later, health workers and neighborhood volunteers began patting charred bodies.
Social media videos showed a chaotic scene as firefighters tried to put out the fire and health workers tried to evacuate patients. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, health workers and civil protection teams were ultimately able to save at least 200 people, including patients.
But neither Riad’s grandmother Noriya Fatthala, 75, nor his aunt Rajaa Ali, 60, would be among the survivors.
“Both my grandmother and aunt died from suffocation,” Riyadh told CNN in a Baghdad morgue, where he was waiting to collect their bodies.
“Nobody imagined this could happen, but it’s all bad management,” Riyadh told CNN. “I blame the health sector.”
A political reckoning
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has said that family members of each victim will be given 10 million Iraqi dinars (US $ 6,800).
He also ordered the suspension of Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and Baghdad’s Governor Mohammed al-Atta during an emergency meeting with his cabinet on Sunday. Al-Kadhimi’s office said they are being questioned in connection with the hospital fire.
The prime minister ordered an “investigation to be completed within five days and a report to be presented to the Council of Ministers,” it said.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Health, civil protection teams are still “investigating the causes that led to this fire”.
People from all over Iraq are being referred to the hospital in southeast Baghdad, including many with Covid-19.
28 of the known victims were treated in intensive care units from Covid-19, said Ali Akram al-Bayati of the Independent High Commission on Human Rights in Iraq (IHCHR). The organization has described the incident as a “crime against patients who were forced to be hospitalized due to the severity of illness as a result of Covid-19 infection”.
Iraqi President Barham Salih has expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and stated that those responsible must be held accountable.
In a statement released by his office, Salih “supported the decisions of the Iraqi government and parliament to call for an immediate investigation into the cause of the fire pending justice,” the statement added. He also urged all possible efforts to treat those injured in the fire.
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said, according to a statement from her office on Sunday, “shock and pain over the extent of the tragic incident” that affected Covid-19 patients in the hospital.
Journalists Aqeel Najim in Baghdad and Eyad Kourdi in Gaziantep contributed to this report.