The Coptic Church of Egypt, citing health officials, said in a statement that the number of dead has reached 41, and the number of injured has reached 14. The hospital documents show that the children are between 3 and 16 years old.
According to the information provided by the Ministry of Interior of Egypt, the fire started at around 9 am local time due to the cutting of electric wires in the air conditioner on the second floor of the church. The small church is located in the densely populated Imbaba neighborhood.
The ministry said in a post on Facebook that most of the dead and injured were caused by the smoke in the classrooms of the church after the electric wire.
The ministry said that at least two officers and three employees of the civil protection service who intervened in the fire were injured.
Church officials also believe the fire was accidental, said Coptic Church spokesman Senior Reverend Musa Ibrahim, adding that a priest was among the dead.
Egypt’s Coptic community and churches have historically been the target of religiously-based violence and attacks, with persecution and discrimination increasing since the 2011 ouster of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
“We are in constant contact with local authorities and the Ministry of Health,” Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, said, according to a church spokesman.
Youssef Islam, 16, who works at a bakery next door to the church, said the worst of the fire was on the fourth floor. He said he ran into the church and intended to fetch water from the third floor to help put out the flames on the floor above.
But when he forced his way through the door, he saw that the children were piled on top of each other. “It’s a terrible sight,” I said. “It was probably a nursery school.”
Mariam Malak, 23, told CNN that she left the church shortly before the fire started.
“I left the church after the service on Sunday and my mom called me on the way to work. She thought I was on fire. I came back and saw the church in flames. Just a few people missed it. Minute,” he said.
“All those who were there have gone to heaven, including our father Abdel Masih, who prayed this morning, and many of our family and friends. We are now trying to identify everyone.”
CNN also spoke with a family passing through the neighborhood looking for their cousin’s body after the fire died down.
“I can’t believe I won’t see you again, Irene. Why did you leave us so soon?” one of the women, Afaf, muttered to herself as she walked from one church to another. Afaf’s sister Amani Marina held his hand and prayed silently. Their cousin Amany cried silently in the front seat as her husband Sameh continued to drive.
It was almost sunset when they reached the church in Al-Warraq neighborhood where the prayer for the dead was said. The three women held hands as they passed through security.
Hundreds of mourners flocked to the church and waited for the caskets to be brought from the hospital. Small boxes of children were carried through the church gate above the crowd.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed his condolences to the victims of the fire on his Twitter page.
“I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the innocent victims who went to their Lord in one of the houses of worship,” Sisi said.
The Egyptian president said that he closely followed the development of the “tragic accident” and ordered the government agencies to take necessary measures to immediately eliminate the tragedy and take care of the injured.
Hesham El Swefiy, the head of the Engineering Department of the Egyptian Armed Forces, told Pope Tawadros and Sisi’s instructions regarding the reconstruction of the church in a telephone conversation, the state news agency reported.
Egyptian football player Mo Salah, who plays for “Liverpool” and is the captain of the national team, also sent a message of support to those affected by the tragedy in a tweet on Sunday: “My sincere condolences to the victims of the Abu Sefein church and I wish all the injured a speedy recovery.”
According to Egyptian state news, El Sawy visited the scene and told a team of eyewitnesses that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in an electrical generator.
“The prosecution team examined the bodies of all the victims and found no visible injuries on the bodies of the deceased except for signs of strangulation,” El Sawy said.
The public prosecutor interrogated 14 of the injured and instructed the State Department for Criminal Evidence to collect evidence at the scene.