|Burned incubators for newborn babies are dumped outside a maternity ward after a fire at Yarmouk hospital in western Baghdad, Iraq (Reuters)|
Devastated parents have told how they tried to rescue their babies from a fire at a hospital in Baghdad but found the door to the ward locked and panicking staff unable to find a key.
At least 13 infants were killed in the blaze, which was the latest tragedy to hit the Iraqi capital in the wake of months of incessant suicide bombings and terror attacks.
Anger was growing over the fire as the blame turned to the government following rumours of shoddy maintenance, electrical faults, broken fire extinguishers and a fatally slow response by firefighters.
Mariam Thijeel, the mother of a newborn baby boy who died, said she ran into the ward as she heard screaming late on Tuesday night.
“The power was cut off, and then the doors got locked on us, and there was no man in the newborn section, and we could not save any babies,” she told the New York Times, describing chaos as parents desperately tried to find a hospital worker with keys.
“We asked the help of one of the employees, but she said, ‘I cannot help you with anything, because it’s a fire.”
Witnesses said there were no staff inside the room as the blaze took hold and that it took more than an hour for fire crews to reach Yarmouk hospital.
Photos showed charred incubators in the street, with their plastic covers blackened and melted by the flames.
The Iraqi Health Ministry said 29 female patients and eight babies were safely moved and treated for burns or smoke inhalation at another hospital.
A spokesperson said hospital staff had tried their best to put the fire out and suceeded in rescuing several infants.
The government has announced a committee to determine the cause of the blaze, which was believed to have started as an electrical fire triggered by faulty wiring.
But the investigation was not enough to assuage the anger and grief of bereaved parents, who gathered outside Yarmouk hospital demanding to know their children’s fate.
Inside the charred maternity ward, forensic teams in masks and protective gloves were seen searching through the rubble and charred pieces of furniture.
One father, 30-year-old Hussein Omar, said his twin son and daughter died at under a week old.
The hospital told him to go look for them at another hospital where some of the patients were moved but after failing to find them, he return to Yarmouk, only to be directed to the morgue.
“I only found charred pieces of flesh,” he said through tears. “I want my baby boy and girl back. The government must give them back to me.”
Nearby, Shaima Hassan stood dazed and trembling in shock after losing her two-day-old son, who she had spent more than a year visiting hospitals in and outside Iraq trying to conceive.
“I waited for ages to have this baby and when I finally had him, it took only a second to lose him,” the 36-year old said, holding a bunch of blackened documents with her hands, covered with burns.
She recounted how the chaos began at midnight at the ward, located on the ground floor.
“People started screaming, 'Fire, fire' and running,” said Hassan. She and her husband, who was visiting them, ran toward the room for the newborns but were stopped by a wall of thick smoke.
“Then someone broke a window and threw me out,” she added.
The incident is likely to intensify accusations of state corruption and mismanagement, with 2013 recommendations to reduce fire risks in municipal buildings having little effect.
Thirteen years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the oil-rich country still suffers a shortage of electricity, water, schools and medical facilities.
Pictures posted on social media recently showed Yarmouk hospital in a state of neglect, with cockroaches crawling out from between broken tiles, dustbins overflowing with rubbish, dirty toilets and patients lying on stretchers in the courtyard.