A fire ripped through a packed wedding hall in northern Iraq late on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya.
Fire fighters searched the charred remains of the building in Qaraqosh through Wednesday morning and bereaved relatives gathered outside a morgue in the nearby city of Mosul, wailing and rocking in distress.
"This was not a wedding. This was hell," said Mariam Khedr, crying and hitting herself as she waited for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren, the youngest aged just eight months.
Survivors said hundreds of people were at the wedding celebration, which followed an earlier church service, and the fire began about an hour into the event when flares ignited a ceiling decoration as the bride and groom danced.
Nineveh province Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaf told Reuters 113 people had been confirmed dead. The head of the province's Red Crescent branch said the death toll was not final but that it "exceeds hundreds injured and dozens killed".
A video of the event, posted on social media but not yet verified by Reuters, appeared to show the flares suddenly catching a glittering ceiling decoration that burst into flames, as sounds of excitement turned rapidly to panic.
Another video that Reuters has not yet verified showed a couple dancing in wedding clothes as burning material begins to drop to the floor.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said it had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the wedding hall, state media reported, and President Abdul Latif Rashid called for an investigation.
Three people who attended the wedding said the hall appeared poorly equipped for the disaster with no visible fire extinguishers and few exits. Fire fighters arrived 30 minutes after the blaze began, they said.
Deadly fires in Iraq that were blamed on negligence, lax regulations and corruption hit two hospitals treating COVID patients in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya in 2021, killing at least 174 people in all.
"We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn't got stuck," said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.
Preliminary information indicated that the building was made of highly flammable construction materials, contributing to its rapid collapse, state media said.
"I lost my daughter, her husband and their 3-year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning," a woman said outside the morgue, where bodies lay outside in bags as vehicles came to collect those that had been identified.
A man called Youssef stood nearby with burns covering his hands and face. He said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. He had grabbed his 3-year-old grandson and managed to get out.
But his wife, Bashra Mansour, in her 50’s, did not make it. She fell in the chaos and died.
Qaraqosh in mourning
People in black streamed towards the cemetery in Qaraqosh on Wednesday afternoon as a line of pickup trucks drove past, carrying the dead for burial.
Hundreds gathered, many sobbing, as coffins were carried at shoulder height, some shrouded in white, one with a floral cloth, before being laid on the ground where distraught mourners tightly embraced as caskets were lowered into their graves.
Most residents of Qaraqosh, which is mostly Christian but also home to some members of Iraq's Yazidi minority, fled the town when ISIS seized it in 2014. But they returned after the group was ousted in 2017.
"Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness. Now we are preparing their burial," said deacon Hani al-Kasmousa at Mar Youhanna church, where the wedding service took place before the evening celebrations.
When Pope Francis visited Qaraqosh in 2021, residents crowded the streets in bright clothes, with olive branches borne aloft and Assyrian hymns blared from loudspeakers to celebrate the inhabitants' return after years of militant occupation.
Only about 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq after most of the 1.5 million who lived in the country fled during the chaos following the US-led invasion in 2003, an exodus aggravated by ISIS’ seizure of Ninevah plains towns in 2014.