Thousands in Gaza bid farewell to 21-member family killed in apartment blaze

Neighbour says it took firefighters 45 minutes to reach the scene

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Thousands attended the funerals on Friday of 21 people killed in a huge fire at a residential building in a refugee camp.

Those killed in Thursday evening's fire were all members of the same family attending a birthday party when the fire broke out. It gutted the third-floor apartment completely, a witness told The National.

An investigation into the fire at the northern Jabalia camp found a large amount of gas was stored on the property, but the exact cause is not yet known.

It was one of the deadliest incidents in Gaza in recent years outside the violence stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I received a call telling me that my uncle’s house is burning, I came quickly but I couldn’t do anything,” said Ahmad Abu Raya, a relative acting as spokesperson for the family.

Those killed were from three generations — a couple, their five sons and one daughter, two daughters-in-law and 11 grandchildren, according to Mr Abu Raya and Mohammed Jadallah, who had married into the Abu Raya family.

The dead were taken from the Indonesian hospital in the north of the Gaza Strip to a local mosque and then to a cemetery. Waiting for the bodies to be released at the hospital, Mr Abu Raya says he could barely stand the shock of the incident.

At the scene of the fire in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp, police prevented people from entering the building. But neighbours gathered outside, sharing stories of the dramatic evening and how they used simple tools to break into the building to rescue people inside.

“I saw the lady with her son calling for help from the window, then we called for anyone to open the building door but with no result, so we tried to break the door to enter the building,” said neighbour Shaban Al Bahtimy, 23.

It took 45 minutes for firefighters to arrive, he said.

“We tried immediately to reach them …. The smoke was so heavy and we used all the fire extinguishers in in the neighbourhood before the arrival of the firefighters.”

He said some in the area were calling for more firefighters and better safety equipment to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Neighbours also said that when the firefighters arrived they immediately started to try and control the massive flames to not reach other buildings.

Tamer Abed also tried his best to protect his home and family from the blaze.

“The fire reached my house, and I immediately evacuated all my family members to the street, closed the windows, then I used water from my house to put out the fire of the next building,” he said.

He called one of the Abu Raya family, but received no answer, then tried to access their apartment to no avail.

Mohammed Abu Khater said it was difficult when the firefighters removed the burnt bodies from the building, telling The National that it was a site “that can’t escape the memory”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a day of mourning on Friday, with flags to be flown at half-mast, and offered to send aid to families of the victims.

Updated: November 18, 2022, 6:00 PM