Iraq wedding fire: Grieving survivor recalls horrifying speed of tragedy

Iraqis have been shocked by another disaster that shines a spotlight on poor building and safety standards across the country

Steven Nabil, the fiance of Maryam Moatasem who died in the wedding hall fire, holds a memorial plaque containing pictures of the couple during their engagement, at his family home in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq.
Powered by automated translation

“I am going to die, take care of yourself, I love you.” Those were the last words Maryam Moatasem said to her fiance before she died in the Qaraqosh wedding venue fire in northern Iraq last Tuesday, along with 107 other revellers.

Attending a wedding reception should have been a joyous event.

Her 23-year-old husband-to-be, Steven Nabil (who shares the name of an Iraqi Christian political commentator), hugs a picture of her as he tries to describe his grief.

The DJ, who was working at the venue that night, left her side for just 10 minutes when the tragedy struck.

The disaster has been widely blamed on large sparklers igniting highly flammable roof material in the events hall, leading to a stampede as the huge room filled with flames and toxic smoke.

One hundred and fifty were injured, many with life-changing injuries, the Nineveh Health Department said on Sunday. Like many public buildings in Iraq, where safety standards are rarely enforced, the venue was made of highly flammable material and had only one main exit.

The tragedy has devastated the majority Christian community in Qaraqosh.

“She was invited to the wedding with her family. She changed her clothes and sent me her pictures before going to the hall. I was present in the hall due to my work, so I came and saw them and sat with them and I bought her little brother a small ball," he says.

'After some time had passed, I told Maryam I was taking a short break from the stress of work, so I went outside for 10 minutes. I didn’t know that I would not see her again.

“What is going on?” he says, describing their last call, to which Maryam said there was a fire in the hall and a lot of smoke.

“So I told her, 'I will come now.' When I arrived, the hall was burning. I saw people burning, and the children and women who were able to get out were crying.”

“I tried to enter the hall to rescue my fiance, but could not enter through the main door. The smoke was too much. I tried to enter from the bathrooms because she was there. I broke the window, but could not enter because of the smoke.”

“The ceiling was made of cork and plastic, which helped spread the fire. All the tables were made of wood and the whiskey became like gasoline, helping the fire spread quickly.”

“Then a demolition vehicle came and broke the wall and took her out with about 60 other women who believed they could escape the fire when they entered the bathrooms.”

“When they took Maryam out, she was lying on the ground with her phone in her hand. I did not see her there. My brother and her relatives brought her body to the house after it had been taken to the forensic medicine office. They did not give her oxygen after the fire and did not give her any treatment. She was taken directly among the dead.”

Tragedy in wake of conflict

Maryam came from a humble background, living with her family in a simple neighbourhood in Qaraqosh. Her father works as a car blacksmith, and she was unable to complete her middle school studies after being displaced to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq during the war against ISIS.

Naeem Moatasem, Maryam’s father, said that plastic flowers were another reason the fire spread so rapidly.

“When the first dance started and they set off the firecrackers, four of them were activated at first, but after the other four were activated, the ceiling began to catch fire. What helped the fire spread were the artificial flowers placed on the ceiling in the middle of the hall,” Mr Moatasem said.

“When the fire started, we were sitting. Maryam’s mother said, ‘Get up and let us go out.’ There were six people from the family. My little son was playing outside the hall. We went to go out through the main door, but it was very crowded and we could not," said Mr Moatasem said.

"We returned to the kitchen door, and before we arrived, the electricity was turned off, and then we couldn’t see each other. Maryam was holding her mother’s back when we left and reached the kitchen door. They brought the bride close to us, and then Maryam was lost from us.

“When we left, Maryam’s mother started screaming, 'Maryam! Maryam is not here!' I tried to go back and search for her, but I couldn’t because of the fire. Then Maryam called her brother by phone and said to him, ‘I’m in the bathroom. Come and save me’.

"Her brother tried to come in and save her, but he couldn’t. When the fire died down, ambulance personnel entered. Maryam was suffocating. She was engaged and her wedding was soon, they were going to get married next October,” Mr Moatasem said.

“We did not realise that this hall, which we often go to during our weddings, would take Maryam from us,” he added.

“Maryam was beautiful and very affectionate. One of her daily morning habits was to drink coffee. She would make coffee for me, her mother, and herself.”

On Sunday, the head of the fire department in Nineveh province was arrested as part of an continuing investigation into the disaster, but it remains unclear if any senior political figures will face punishment over lax building safety standards.

The disaster follows a series of deadly fires across Iraq which have killed hundreds in recent years, particularly in hospitals.

In almost all cases, highly flammable building materials, such as plastic, a lack of fire escapes and poor electrical wiring have been blamed.

Updated: November 23, 2023, 10:13 AM