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KUWAIT: Firefighters and security forces gather outside a building which was engulfed by fire in Mangaf on June 12, 2024. - Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat
KUWAIT: Firefighters and security forces gather outside a building which was engulfed by fire in Mangaf on June 12, 2024. - Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

49 KILLED IN MANGAF INFERNO

Amir expresses sorrow, orders swift probe • Modi expresses grief • Indian envoy visits the injured

MoI orders crackdown on violations • Prosecutor launches probe • Municipal officials suspended

KUWAIT: At least 49 workers, mostly Indian, were killed and dozens injured on Wednesday in a huge fire in a building in Mangaf, the worst building fire in Kuwait’s history, triggering calls for action against real estate landlords and company owners who violate the law to house large numbers of foreign laborers in extremely unsafe conditions to cut costs.

The fire erupted just after 4:00 am, when the majority of the 196 all-men residents of the seven-storey building were asleep. It resulted in huge thick clouds of black smoke that led to the suffocation of most of the victims, according to officials from the interior ministry and the fire department. A foreign ministry statement said the “tragic” fire had “claimed the lives of 49 citizens of the Indian community residing in the State of Kuwait”.

HH the Amir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent cables of condolences to the relatives of the victims expressing deep sorrow and sympathy. He ordered an immediate investigation into what caused the fire and to hold to account those responsible. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah also sent cables of condolences to the victims’ relatives.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and vowed all support. “The fire mishap in Kuwait City is saddening. My thoughts are with all those who lost their near and dear ones. I pray that the injured recover at the earliest,” Modi wrote on his X account. He said the Indian Embassy in Kuwait is closely monitoring the situation and working with the authorities there to assist the affected.

The Indian Embassy in Kuwait put in place an emergency helpline number +965-65505246, saying the embassy is committed to render all possible assistance. Health Minister Ahmad Al-Awadhi said hospitals had received 56 people injured in the fire. Indian Ambassador Dr Adarsh Swaika visited the site of the blaze and met injured people at hospitals. Modi also sent Union Minister of State for External Affairs, Environment, Forest and Climate Change Kirti Vardhan Singh to Kuwait to oversee assistance of those injured and to coordinate with local authorities for the early repatriation of mortal remains of those who died.

India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar posted that he was “deeply shocked by the news” and offered “deepest condolences to the families of those who tragically lost their lives”. He spoke on the phone with his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdullah Al-Yahya, who “expressed the condolences of the leadership, government and people of Kuwait”, the foreign ministry statement said.

Deputy Premier, Defense and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahad Al-Yousef Al-Sabah rushed to the site and toured hospitals where injured workers were taken for treatment. He ordered the arrest of the Kuwaiti landlord of the building and the Egyptian guard of the building, and warned officials not to release them without his permission.

The minister told reporters that the fire is a catastrophe, adding that from Thursday, teams from the municipality will begin inspecting all buildings and have the authority to remove any violation without any warning. Sheikh Fahad added the Public Authority of Manpower will also start from tomorrow to study the issue of overcrowding of expat workers in buildings and the failure to comply with safety conditions. Interior Ministry Undersecretary Sheikh Gen Salem Al-Nawaf Al-Sabah later visited injured victims who have been hospitalized.

The public prosecution has started an investigation into the fire to uncover the circumstances behind the incident and what might have triggered the deadly inferno, it said on X, praising the state-wide response to the disaster. There has been no official word on how the blaze started or what caused it. Some local media reported that it could be a gas leak from the building’s ground floor.

Head of investigations at Kuwait Fire Department Col Sayed Al-Mousawi said that the team investigating the causes of the fire found that an inflammable material was used as partitions between apartments and also between rooms, which caused the huge black clouds of smoke. He said that many of the victims suffocated while trying to run down the stairs because they were filled with smoke, adding that the victims could not go to the rooftop because the door was locked.

Mousawi said that the fire teams rescued a large number of workers by putting out the fire in under 10 minutes of arrival, adding the fire department received an emergency call at 4.23 am and the teams arrived at 4.28 am. He said the investigation team from the department has collected material to determine the cause of the fire, adding around two dozen cooking gas cylinders were found on the building’s ground floor.

Mousawi said that the work of the fire teams was hindered by the presence of many violations inside and outside the building, adding that five firemen were injured in the process. Forensic experts from the criminal evidence department of the interior ministry also were at the scene and collected material to investigate the cause of the fire.

An Egyptian worker who was in the building told reporters from his hospital bed that it took him two hours to get out of the building with the help of firemen, adding that while going down the stairs, he saw several charred bodies. The man, who suffered light injuries, said that the overwhelming number of residents of the building are Indian, but there are a few Pakistanis and Filipinos too. There is another Egyptian in the building, he said.

Reacting to the tragic incident, Minister of Public Works and Minister of State for Municipality Affairs Noura Al-Mashaan ordered the director of Kuwait Municipality Saud Al-Dabbous to suspend top officials related to the incident. Dabbous immediately suspended four top officials from Ahmadi Municipality and ordered an investigation into suspected violations in the affected building and other buildings in the area.

The Mangaf building fire incident is the worst building fire in Kuwait and the second largest fire disaster in the country with regards to the death toll. In August 2009, a woman angry that her husband was getting married to another woman, set his wedding tent ablaze, killing 56 women and children in Jahra.

News and comments on the blaze became the top issue on social media as people called for fundamental action to crack down on violators and trafficking in persons. A former minister said the fire incident should be used to open wide the corruption files regarding trafficking in unskilled workers and violations in expat workers’ accommodation, in addition to violations in buildings and safety conditions.

A former lawmaker charged that the “legalization” of illicit trafficking in persons coupled with the negligence of government authorities to monitor housing of workers “have led to catastrophic results, which eventually took us to the tragic Mangaf fire”. “If the government does not hold the ‘greed mafia’ accountable ... and start the strict implementation of the law without any exceptions, and lay down practical solutions to the problems of manpower and the disorder in the population structure, catastrophes and disasters will happen again and only poor people and the society will pay the price,” he said.

A law consultant said that over 40 people were killed because of the negligence of authorities and the greed of businessmen “who have no fear of God”. He questioned who will give protection to some expats from the oppression of their sponsor (kafeel). An associate professor said the unfortunate incident highlights the disdain and greed of real estate landlords in Kuwait and the failure of government authorities to strictly apply the law.

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