Video points to safety issues that led to deadly Iraq wedding blaze, expert says

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(LONDON) — An ecstatic couple slow danced surrounded by their loved ones in an opulently decorated wedding hall flanked by pyrotechnics.

Within an hour, over 200 of their closest friends and family suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. More than half did not survive.

Videos verified by ABC News and reviewed by a fire investigator reveal the hazards that turned the venue, Al-Haitham Hall in Hamdaniya, Iraq, into what the investigator described as a “firetrap.”

The deadly fire in late September sparked a speedy government investigation that placed the blame on the venue’s owners but has also revealed broader cleavages within Iraqi society.

Pyrotechnics

A report issued by Iraq’s Interior Ministry four days after the fire highlights four pyrotechnic devices in the center of the wedding hall as responsible for the start of the fire. Sparks reached four meters in height, according to the report.

The judgement prompted ire among some observers, who claimed the devices were “cold” pyrotechnics that did not emit live flames. Several TikTok videos showed users placing their hands into the showers of sparks emitted by the devices in an effort to demonstrate their perceived lack of risk.

In security footage from less than a minute before the fire began, a videographer can be seen stepping through the sparks, but experts say the devices may not be without their risks. ABC News consulted a person with knowledge of cold pyrotechnics who said they can still be hazardous if safe distances are not observed and the sparks come into contact with flammable material.

Captain Walter Godfrey, president of Fire/Reconstruction Consultants Inc., which is based in Florida, reviewed the video and said the four “cold” pyrotechnic devices were the “central ignition source” and in turn led to the fire spreading to the hall’s “highly flammable” central ceiling fixture.

Flammable decorations

Drone video obtained from wedding videographers shows the hall’s elaborately decorated central ceiling fixture.

Godfrey identified the brown material as the first to be ignited.

“Being leafy in design it allowed sufficient oxygen around the individual leaves to support combustion and depending on their chemical make-up supports rapid flame spread throughout the venue,” he said.

Godfrey identified this same material falling from the ceiling in the video, moments after the fire began.

Godfrey believes the flaming decorations then acted as a catalyst, spreading to the white fabric drapes acting as light diffusers and gold hanging decorations, before falling on vinyl covered tables and chairs and in turn igniting them.

Security video released by Iraqi’s interior ministry shows thick smoke billowing down from this same central ceiling fixture. Godfrey believes the smoke was circulated by air conditioning units located close to the active fire, further adding to confusion and obscuring vision in the first few minutes.

Blackout

Gandhi Bashar Abdul Ahad, a musician at the wedding, told ABC News that women and children started screaming as they noticed the fire dropping from the ceiling.

“All the lights went out inside the hall, and it became very dark, and people started bumping into chairs and tables and people falling on top of each other,” he said.

The government investigation claimed the hall’s owner, thinking that a short circuit had started the fire, had cut the electricity and plunged the room into darkness. Godfrey suggests instead the fire could have caused the circuits in the ceiling area to short out, pop the breakers, and cut out the lights.

Fire exits

ABC News spoke with two attendees who confirmed that there were only two exit routes; the main entrance and a second exit route via the kitchen.

Godfrey deems the lack of exits on a building of this size as “criminal,” highlighting how the table layout acted as a barrier, trapping guests on one half of the room with no exit route.

When the fire broke out Ghandi was sitting with the band on stage. He said, along with the bride and groom, he managed to escape through the kitchen door.

“I went to the main door to help the families, but I was unable to enter due to the intensity of the fire inside. No one could enter the hall to save the families because everyone who entered would die,” he said.

Graphic videos taken by videographer Ghali Kasko at 11:36 p.m. show gaping holes in the external walls that Ghali claims were made by desperate civilians using bulldozers to reach people trapped inside the building.

Failure to enforce regulations

Nineb Lamassu, a Peacebuilding Advisor for an NGO based in Mosul, told ABC News the scale of the deadly fire was the result of negligence on the part of the proprietor.

However, the interior ministry’s recommendation in its report that six regional officials be fired for their failure to enforce safety regulations has angered many in the often-neglected region of Ninevah, who believe administrators from the local Christian community are being unequally scapegoated.

Speaking to ABC News from Baghdad, Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, said the government report’s fast turnaround was the result of political pressures as Iraq’s government faces the approaching anniversary of opposition protests.

“This is a time when the atmosphere is very tense,” Kadhim said.

“It’s very hard to expect the government to reform this situation because it is associated with the wider problem of corruption which is rampant in the country. Enforcement is next to nil,” Kadhim said.

“Many feel it didn’t handle the root causes of the problems,” he said.

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