Iraq’s Nineveh buries its dead as families seek answers after wedding fire

Most of the wedding guests in the Hamdaniya reception hall belong to Nineveh’s Christian minority, but the tragedy shook the whole community.

Funerals have been taking place for the victims of a fire that killed more than 100 people at a wedding reception in Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh.

Hundreds of people gathered on Thursday at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Nineveh’s Hamdaniya district to bid farewell to those killed on Tuesday night.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who has ordered an investigation into the blaze, also visited Hamdaniya on Thursday to inspect the site of the fire and meet the families of the victims and survivors.

Several of the dead were also buried on Wednesday afternoon in Hamdaniya, less than 24 hours after the fire.

The crowd of mourners, many dressed in black, looked stunned as relatives and friends carried the coffins of the victims while other family members wailed. Some stood in silence next to photos placed on the graves of their loved ones.

“Sadness has prevailed in the town. It’s as if there was a curfew imposed,” Faten Youssef, one of the survivors, said as she attended the funerals on Wednesday. “The town has transformed from happiness to grief and morning.”

She said her family has promised to never attend weddings again.

“My son told me that if he gets married, he will never have an event like this – just a church ceremony,” she said.

‘Disaster in every sense’

More funerals are expected in the coming days as investigators continue to identify the victims, some of whom were burned beyond recognition.

Most of those who attended the wedding belong to Nineveh’s Christian minority. But tragedy sent ripples of grief beyond Hamdaniya, a region of small towns with a mixture of Christians, Muslims and small minority religions in the Nineveh Plains outside the northern city of Mosul.

There was no official word on the cause of the blaze, but video footage showed flames igniting from the ceiling of the reception hall as fireworks were lit up in the middle of the dance floor.

A video clip showed panicked guests, estimated to be about 250, stampeding for the exits of the al-Haitham Royal Wedding Hall as flaming decorations and pieces of ceiling rained down on them.

The tragedy was the latest to hit Iraq’s Christian minority, which has dwindled to a fraction of its former size over the past decade in the face of deadly attacks.

Father Rudi Saffar Khoury, a priest at the ill-fated wedding, told The Associated Press news agency: “It was a disaster in every sense of the word.”

‘Sandwich panel’

As the funerals continued on Thursday, survivors and family members of the victims raised questions about the safety of the hall as well as the government’s role in implementing building regulations.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Saad Maan said the primary forensic report described a “lack of safety and security measures” at the venue.

Security forces have arrested more than a dozen people linked to the operation of the hall, according to Abdullah al-Jabouri, head ofthe Nineveh Operations Command.

Civil defence officials quoted by the Iraqi News Agency said the wedding hall’s exterior was covered with a highly flammable, low-cost type of “sandwich panel” cladding that is illegal in the country. The materials “collapse within minutes when a fire breaks out”, the Civil Defence Corp said.

Experts said these cheaper sandwich panels don’t always meet safety standards and are especially dangerous on buildings without any breaks to slow or halt a potential blaze.

Similar panels have been blamed in several previous deadly fires in Iraq. In July 2021, a blaze at a hospital in Nasiriyah that killed 60 to 92 people was determined to have been fuelled by sandwich panels.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies