Egypt fire: Children among the dozens dead in Cairo church blaze

The panic to escape the flames triggered a crush, as Vincent McAviney reports

A fire ripped through a church in the Egyptian capital of Cairo killing at least 41, including children, as congregants worshipped on Sunday, the Coptic Church said.

The Abu Sefein church in the neighbourhood of Imbaba quickly filled with thick black smoke, and witnesses said several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors to escape.

The church said the blaze broke out while a service was underway. The church is located in a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Cairo.

At least 15 children were killed in the fire, while 16 people were injured.

“Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,” said a distraught witness. “There are children we didn’t know how to get to them. And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?"

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, but an initial investigation pointed to an electrical short-circuit, according to a police statement.

It is one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.

The church said the fire broke out while a service was underway. Credit: AP

Footage from the scene circulated online showed burned furniture, including wooden tables and chairs.

Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances and families waited for word on relatives who were inside the church.Witness Emad Hanna said the church includes two places used as a daycare for children, and that a church worker managed to get many children out.

"We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people want to jump from the upper floor...we found the children."

The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and a stampede as people attempted to flee the fire for causing the fatalities.

Egypt's Coptic Church and the country's health ministry reported the casualty toll.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known but police said an initial investigation blamed an electrical short-circuit. Credit: AP

Firefighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames, while ambulances ferried casualties to nearby hospitals.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said.

“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi wrote on Facebook.

“I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures, and immediately to deal with this accident and its effects.”

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from a hospital while 12 others were still being treated.The Interior Ministry said it received a report on the fire at 9am local time, and that they found that the blaze broke out in an air conditioner in the building's second story.

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The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors were dispatched to the church.

Later on Sunday, emergency services said they managed to put out the blaze and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site.

Egypt’s Christians account for some 10% of the nation’s 90 million people and have long complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority.

Sunday's blaze was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in a country where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced.

In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 more.