A fire ripped through a packed Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshipers, including at least 15 children.
Several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said.
“Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,” said Abu Bishoy, a distraught witness who only gave a partial name.
Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen involved in the rescue effort.
The cause of the blaze at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short-circuit, according to a police statement.
Weeping families waited outside for word about relatives who were inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage circulated online showed burned furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances.
Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building, which had two day-care facilities.
“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”
A total of 15 children were killed in the fire, according to Copts United, a news website focusing on Christian news.
A list of victims obtained by The Associated Press said 20 bodies, including 10 children, were taken to the Imbaba public hospital. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old, it said. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.
Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt were among those killed.
Witness Emad Hanna said a church worker managed to get some children out of the church day-care facilities.
“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,” Hanna said.
Fifteen firefighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames while ambulances ferried casualties to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah Sisi called Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said.
By late afternoon, caskets carrying the dead were transferred in ambulances for pre-burial prayers at two churches in the nearby Waraq neighborhood, as weeping women lined their path. Hundreds of mourners gathered at the churches for the funerals, before taking the bodies for burial in nearby cemeteries.
Christians account for some 10% of Egypt's more than 103 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 Egypt, 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.