Karwan Saddiqi will never forget the tragic scenes he saw in Sulaimaniyah on 15 July. The 28 year-old was among those who volunteered to help rescue guests trapped in a blaze in the Soma Hotel after fire broke out
Initial investigations have not yet revealed the actual cause of the fire but the large number of deaths can almost certainly be attributed to the fact that the building, like many in Kurdistan, was ill-equipped to cope with such an emergency.
Guests were trapped by a lack of emergency exits. The building had no ventilation windows, no emergency alarm system and no fire extinguishers.
“I saw people jump from the fourth floor and watched people suffocate as they struggled to get out,” said Saddiqi.
The young man joined firefighters from the Civil Defence Force (CDF) as they battled with the blaze and their poor and outdated equipment. They were hindered by a lack of an emergency power supply in the building.
Eyewitnesses said that after the fire erupted, it took the fire service a long time to reach the location. When they arrived, their ability to handle the blaze was poor, mainly because they lacked the necessary equipment to reduce the size of the disaster and rescue victims.
The CDF arrived with no torches. They used their mobile phone lights to find their way in the dark. They had no ladders suitable for reaching those trapped on the upper floors. They relied on people like Karwan Saddiqi to help out.
Brigadier Yidgar Muhammad, the general director of the CDF in Sulaimaniyah, admitted that the odds were stacked against the CDF and that they barely constituted a real ‘emergency’ service.
“The directorate does not have the necessary equipment to perform any unexpected and difficult mission such as extinguishing the fire that broke out in the Soma Hotel,” he complained.
He added that he spent the year campaigning for improvements.
“Since December, we have been begging the authorities to provide us with adequate emergency ladders but we are still to receive an answer.”
In Sulaimaniyah Province, there is only one properly equipped fire truck and only one ladder than can reach 32 metres. The Brigadier, while complaining about the equipment situation, praised his men for their bravery.
“We were able to control the fire within an hour and a half. We rescued 54 people from the hotel and seven of our members were injured in the operation."
He went on to claim that the CDF was also campaigning for better safety measures in buildings in the province.
“We sent an official letter to the municipalities directorate, asking it to issue orders to people who own hotels and other buildings to abide by the civil defense safety conditions. Buildings need fire escapes, automatic water pumps and fire alarms for emergencies. The Soma Hotel was equipped with none of the above.
“We received no answer to our letter.”
Kurdistan’s recent economic success has led to many new buildings popping up in its cities. Most of these buildings fail to reach international safety standards.
To reduce the likelihood of similar disasters, Yassin Fiqi Saeed, an architect and the Director General of Investment in Sulaimaniyah, believes there needs to be tighter specifications for any new buildings.
“Fire escapes, alarms and other safety equipment should be installed as standard,” he said.
“That so many people died of suffocation and smoke inhalation proves that safety standards were not high enough. People tried to escape from one exit and found it closed.”
Dr. Barzan Muhammad, a forensic pathologist, said many victims died from carbon monoxide inhalation.
“Very few of the victims died of burns. The majority odied because of the gases they inhaled. The amount of gas we found in their systems was very high. Some others died because they jumped from the upper floors of the building.”
While the exact cause of the fire has still not be released by the authorities, informed sources told Niqash that terrorists were not to blame. It is believed that an electrical accident escalated.
Tawan Ali, the press secretary of Sulaimaniyah governor, said that investigations are ongoing and results will be announced in due course.
Tawan said that a delegation from Baghdad Civil Defense Directorate, under the Interior Ministry's control, had arrived in Sulaimaniyah to investigate the fire.
“The delegation is taking the incident very seriously. It is a very strong warning to all Iraqis. Safety standards and building conditions should be re-examined in all Iraqi provinces,” he said.
Immediately following the incident, the Sulaimaniyah Union of Kurdish Engineers organised a safety workshop, scheduled for 26 July. It remains to be seen whether the workshop will be enough to reassure locals and foreign visitors that such incidents will not happen again.
Will it convince foreigners that Kurdistan is as safe a place for them to work as, say Dubai, with its modern buildings and adherence to international safety standards? Will it bring the much-needed safety equipment to the CDF so that they can carry out better their duty to their citizens?
These questions must be answered and it is deeply disappointing that they have been posed with the deaths of 27 people.