The Abu Seifein Church in the Giza district of Imbaba turned into a death trap when the building caught fire. Forty-one people, including at least 15 children, died in the blaze, and 16 were injured.
Among the bereaved are a husband who lost his wife and three children, a family that lost both their sons, and a woman who lost her mother, husband and five-year-old triplets.
The church’s priest, Abdel-Messih Bakhit, was among the victims.
The church was crowded with worshippers celebrating mass, and many children were in the nursery on the last floor of the four-storey building when the fire broke out.
Mohamed Yehia, a 38-year-old father of four who was on his balcony overlooking the church when the fire broke out, was among the people who rushed to the scene to try and save those trapped by the flames.
“I ran from my house. The crowd brought a ladder so people could enter the church above the main door,” Yehia told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The first body he saw was that of the 50-year-old priest who eyewitnesses later reported had refused to leave as long as others were trapped inside. Yehia said that Priest Bakhit who was known for his charitable work even during the holy month of Ramadan, was lying on the ground suffocated.
“I went with some people upstairs to find that the source of the fire came from the fourth floor, which is a nursery. Then the fire extended to the third floor.
“The people couldn’t go further up. A few steps before the third floor, fire and thick smoke were coming out of a door near the staircase. To get to the nursery I had to jump through that door,” said Yehia, who managed to save two men and four children who were trapped in the nursery, adding that at that particular moment he was thinking what if his youngest four-month-old baby was in their place.
“When I heard the screams of the children in the nursery, I took off my shirt, soaked it in water, wrapped it around my face, and went through the fire,” he continued.
After reaching the fourth floor, Yehia added, “the vision grew poorer due to the heavy smoke. An old man sitting on the stairs grabbed my leg, saying ‘I’m dying, save me.’ I held him, trying to cover his face, and we passed through the fire until we made it to the second floor, where I handed him to the people waiting there, then I went up again.”
When Yehia reached the fourth floor, “I found the nursery’s iron door closed. It took me several minutes to break the lock with a fire extinguisher. I managed to save another old man and five young girls from the nursery, each in a separate rescue attempt.”
The last man Yehia rescued was “Am George, my neighbour. He was lying still on the floor of the nursery and I thought he had died, but I decided to take him out no matter what.”
By that time the firefighters had sprayed the staircase with plenty of water. Yehia, who was carrying Am George, “fell down the stairs from the fourth to the third floor. My leg was broken and I lost consciousness,” Yehia said, adding that Am George turned out to be alive.
“I don’t regret what I did. My goal was to save lives, be they Muslim or Christian. This was my duty and I need not be thanked for it,” he stressed.
Yehia has been hailed as a hero on social media.
Thirty ambulances were dispatched to the fire and the injured, including two police officers, two firemen and Yehia, were transferred to Imbaba General Hospital and Al-Agouza Hospital for burns and smoke inhalation, according to Health Ministry Spokesperson Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar.
The Egyptian Red Crescent dispatched two psychological support teams to hospitals where victims of the fire are receiving treatment, CEO of the Egyptian Red Crescent Rami Al-Nazer said on Sunday.
In a message of condolence to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the families of the victims, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said he is closely following the tragic incident and had instructed the relevant authorities to provide support to families that had lost loved ones. He also ordered the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to repair the damage to the church.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said the government was following up on the treatment provided to the injured, as per the president’s directives. Madbouli, accompanied by Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar, Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabbaj, and Minister of Local Development Hisham Amna, visited the victims in hospital.
Meanwhile, Minister of Interior Mahmoud Tawfik and Prosecutor-General Hamada Al-Sawi inspected the scene of the blaze.
Speaking later on Sunday, Madbouli said compensation of LE100,000 would be paid to the families of the deceased, and up to LE20,000 to families of the injured, with money distributed within one week.
The Social Solidarity Ministry is also offering psychological support to the families of victims, said Al-Qabbaj.
Egypt’s top Islamic institution Al-Azhar is joining with civil society organisations to provide LE 50,000 to the families of the victims. The sum is in addition to the compensation already announced.
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb said on Sunday that Al-Azhar’s scholars and sheikhs stood alongside those caught up in the tragic events and extended sincere condolences to the families of the dead. He said Al-Azhar was ready to provide whatever support it could, and that Al-Azhar hospitals were ready to receive the injured and provide psychological support.
The Culture Ministry has announced a three-day halt to public activities in mourning for the causalities of the fire.
Preliminary investigations into the incident indicate that the blaze was caused by a short circuit in an electricity generator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.