At least 18 children were among the dozens of people known to have died after a fire broke out at a church in Giza in greater Cairo on Sunday, according to hospital documents seen by CNN.
The children ranged in age from 3 to 16, according to the documents. The current death toll stands at 41 dead and 14 injured, said a statement from Egypt’s Coptic Church that cited health officials.
The fire started at about 9 a.m. local time by an electrical failure in an air conditioning unit on the church’s second floor, the interior ministry said. The small church is located in the highly populated Imbaba neighborhood.
At least two officers and three civil protection service members were injured responding to the fire, Egypt’s interior ministry announced in a Facebook post.
Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by smoke inside church classrooms after the electric failure, the interior ministry said.
Church officials also believe the fire was accidental, Ibrahim said. Egypt’s Coptic community and churches have been a target of religious-based violence and attacks historically, with persecution and discrimination spiking since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
“We are in continuous contact with the local authorities and the Health Ministry,” the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, said, according to the church spokesperson.
Mariam Malak, 23, told CNN that she left the church shortly before the fire broke out.
“I left the church after Sunday Mass and was on my way to work when my mom called me. She thought I was caught in the fire. I turned back and saw (the) church in flames. I just missed it by only a few minutes.
“Everyone who was there went up to heavens, including our father Abdel Masih, who led the prayers this morning and a lot of our families and friends. We are trying to identify everyone now,” she said.
CNN also spoke to a family that was driving through the neighborhood looking for the body of their cousin, Irini, after the fire subsided.
“I can’t believe I won’t see you again, Irini. Why did you leave us so fast?” one of the women, Afaf, murmured to herself throughout the drive from one church to the other. Afaf’s sister Amany Marina held her hand and prayed in silence. Their cousin, Amany, cried silently in the front seat as her husband, Sameh, kept driving.
It was almost sunset when they made it to the church in the Al-Warraq neighborhood where the prayer for the dead was held. The three women held hands as they walked through security.
Hundreds of mourners flocked to the church waiting for the caskets to be brought in from the hospital. The small caskets of children – some as young as 3 and 5 – were carried over the crowds through the church gate.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi tweeted his condolences to the victims of the fire at the church.
“I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved to the side of their Lord in one of the houses of worship,” El Sisi said.
The Egyptian President said he is closely following developments of the “tragic accident” and that he has directed state agencies and institutions to take the necessary measures to immediately deal with the tragedy and provide care for the injured.
El Sisi has directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to reconstruct and repair the church, the spokesperson for the Coptic Orthodox Church announced, according to state news Ahramonline.
Chairman of the Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority Hesham El Swefy informed Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria in a phone call about Sisi’s instructions to reconstruct the burnt church, the state news agency said.
Egyptian soccer player Mo Salah, who plays for Liverpool and captains the national team, also sent a message of support to those affected by the tragedy on Sunday, saying in a tweet: “My sincere condolences to the victims of the Abu Sefein Church, and my best wishes for a speedy recovery to all the injured.”
A preliminary investigation into the fire “indicated that the blaze was caused by an electrical short circuit,” Egyptian state news reported, citing a statement from Egyptian prosecutor-general Hamada El Sawy.
El Sawy visited the site and said eyewitnesses told his team the accident was caused by an electrical short circuit in a power generator, according to Egyptian state news.
“The prosecution team has examined all of the victims’ bodies and found no visible injuries on the deceased bodies except suffocation signs,” El Sawy said.
The public prosecution has questioned 14 of the injured and ordered the Public Administration for Criminal Evidence to collect evidence at the scene, according to the statement quoted.
Lina El Wardani contributed to this report.