A hotel fire in northern Iraq killed at least 30 people, with some guests jumping to their deaths from the five-storey structure to escape the flames, police and hospital officials said yesterday. At least 14 foreigners died in the fire, which started late on Thursday and raged for seven hours in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah before being brought under control.
A representative of the Dubai-based company Terraseis, reached by phone last night, confirmed some of its workers had been staying at the hotel. The employee declined to say how many workers were involved, where they were from or comment on their condition. Terraseis was established a decade ago to help oil companies gather geophysical information. The dead were citizens of countries including Australia, South Africa, Britain, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela and China, with some working for foreign oil companies. More than 40 people were wounded in the fire and a preliminary report prepared by the city's hospital said people from 12 countries had died.
Work and investment opportunities have led many foreigners to flock to Iraq's Kurdish oil-rich north, a region where the thriving economy contrasts sharply with other parts of a country ravaged by sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion. Visiting telecommunications engineers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Cambodia were among the victims, according to hospital officials and the chairman of the telecoms company.
Rikot Hama Rasheed, the director of Sulaimaniyah hospital, said after the fire, which rose rapidly from the second floor of the five-storey Soma Hotel. "The number killed is 30, among whom there are 14 foreigners. "The regional government will contact the embassies of the foreigners who were killed," said Mr Rasheed said. Witnesses said at least three of those who died did so after leaping from the hotel's windows in a desperate bid to save themselves as flames and smoke engulfed their rooms.
The chief of police, Brig Gen Najim al Din Qadir said four women and four children were among the dead. Col Araz Bakr, the chief of Sulaimaniyah rescue services, confirmed the death toll and said 42 people were injured, including seven firefighters. He said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke. A city council official said an electrical fault caused the blaze, which also damaged several adjacent buildings.
Witnesses described a terrifying scene of panicked guests frantically trying to escape the burning building that officials said lacked fire escapes, some flinging themselves from windows in desperation. Marwan Assad, a Kurd with dual British citizenship, said he came to the hotel to visit two friends but never made it to their room. He said the fire broke out when he was on the third floor and smoke quickly enveloped the hallway, forcing him to stumble blindly in search of a way out.
"I saw an open door and a man lying dead in the room because he suffocated from the smoke," Mr Assad said at Sulaimaniyah Emergency Hospital, where he was about to undergo surgery for breaks to both his legs. "I entered the room and threw myself from the window." Kameran Ahmed, who owns an electrical supply shop next to the hotel, said other people were also frantically trying to escape. "I saw three people jump from their floor to escape the fire, but they were killed when they hit the ground," Mr Ahmed said.
Firefighters could be seen working throughout the night to put out the fire in what was once a gleaming, modern building of mirrored-glass windows. The next morning, smoke darkened much of the building's facade, and many of the windows were smashed and broken. The Sulaimaniyah fire chief, Brig Yadgar Mohammed Mustafa, said that most of the victims succumbed to smoke inhalation, and the lack of fire escapes contributed to the high death toll.
The top health official in Sulaimaniyah, Rekwt Mohammed, confirmed the toll, adding that one of the dead was a pregnant woman. Hawri Hassan, the owner of the neighboring Hema Hotel, said the blaze in the Soma Hotel appeared to start in the second story, and quickly spread to the other floors. He said at least three people jumped from the fifth floor. Mr Hassan said the fire also spread to his hotel, but his employees were able to quickly extinguish it.
Sulaimaniyah, 260km north-east of Baghdad, is the commercial capital of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region and the second largest city in the Kurdish region. The area is a thriving trade hub, with close links to Turkey and Iran. Kurdish officials have sought to cast their semiautonomous territory as a business-friendly haven in a country otherwise struggling with political and security woes. Many Iraqis, desperate to get away from the heat and violence in the rest of the country, take their holidays in the Kurdish region in the summer.
A number of foreign oil companies operate in the Kurdish north, which sits on top of about 40 per cent of Iraq's total 115 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves. * With additional reporting by Agence France Presse and the Associated Press