25 dead in Saudi hospital fire

Saudi Civil Defence officers inspecting the damage at Jazan General Hospital following a pre-dawn fire, on Dec 24, 2015.
Saudi Civil Defence officers inspecting the damage at Jazan General Hospital following a pre-dawn fire, on Dec 24, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (AFP) – A fire ripped through a hospital in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, killing at least 25 people and injuring 123, the authorities said.

The blaze broke out in the intensive care unit and the maternity department of the Jazan General Hospital in the kingdom’s south, the civil defence agency said on Twitter.

It said in an update later that the fire had been extinguished and an investigation was under way into the cause.

Twenty-one teams of emergency workers had assisted in putting out the blaze in Jazan, the capital of Jizan province, it added.

The teams were able to evacuate the children and patients from the intensive care unit without problem, the health ministry said on its Twitter account, but most casualties were on the hospital’s upper floors.

“Unfortunately, the thick smoke from the fire spread into the upper floors of the hospital, leaving 25 dead and 123 injured,” Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement carried by national news agency SPA.

A previous toll had put the number of people injured in the fire at 107.

Alriyadh daily quoted a civil defence spokesman as saying the agency was alerted of the fire at 2am (7am on Thursday Singapore time).

In August, 10 people were killed and 259 wounded in a fire at a residential complex rented by oil giant Saudi Aramco in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

That fire was ignited by an electric short circuit in the underground car park, according to the authorities.

Firemen milled around the hospital’s smoke-blackened rooms and clinics in the aftermath of the blaze, inspecting charred gurneys and debris hanging from the ceiling, footage broadcast on Saudi television showed.

Thursday’s fire sparked a wave of criticism among social media users who complained that Jizan province, especially its hospitals, suffers from inadequate infrastructure.

“We must be frank. Jizan had been neglected by the state” for decades, wrote a Twitter user named Ahmed.

“Maybe this catastrophe could put the spotlight on the disastrous situation of hospitals in Jazan... Even though we have little hope” for this, wrote another user.

Others called for Health Minister Khalid al-Falih to be sacked.

Civilians in Jazan have also been victims of frequent missile attacks by Iran-backed rebels in neighbouring Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Shiite Huthi insurgents and their allies since March.