SKOPJE, North Macedonia — North Macedonia’s government declared three days of mourning Thursday following a deadly overnight fire in a COVID-19 field hospital that killed 14 people and injured several others.
The blaze broke out late Wednesday in the western city of Tetovo, where the unit had been set up following a recent spike in infections in the region that left local hospitals full.
The main prosecutor’s office in the capital, Skopje, said 14 people were killed. There were no medical personnel among them, and all were believed to be COVID-19 patients, although it was not clear whether there might have been some relatives among the casualties.
The prosecutor’s office ordered forensic experts to identify the remains, with the process expected to take longer than usual due to special COVID-19 protocols required. About a dozen people were injured, though the exact figure wasn’t immediately available.
”It is a tragedy that I can’t even explain,” said local resident Idriz Brahimi. “Those were sick people who couldn’t get out. It is a huge catastrophe."
After an emergency meeting on the fire, the government ordered national flags to be lowered to half-staff for three days and all sports and cultural events and celebrations to be cancelled until Saturday.
The cause of the fire, which raced through the wooden paneled structure, was not immediately determined, although it was believed to have been an accident, potentially connected to the facility's oxygen supply.
President Stevo Pendarovski said during a visit to Tetovo that the investigation would be completed within five days, and that the cause “was not deliberate arson.”
Five prosecutors from Tetovo and Skopje are working on the investigation. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a Facebook post the blaze followed an explosion at the site. There was speculation that the blast was linked to oxygen supplies.
“We saw the explosion and when we came here everything was in flames,” said local resident Nexhmedin Haliti. “Firefighters arrived and started to put the fire out, it lasted for 15-20 minutes. Everything burnt out.”
Fires in COVID-19 hospitals or wards have cost dozens of lives in other countries.
In July, a fire that swept through a COVID-19 ward in a hospital in Iraq's Nasiriyah killed 92, and is believed to have been started either by a short-circuit or an oxygen cylinder explosion. In April, at least 82 people — many of them COVID-19 patients or their relatives — died in a fire at a Baghdad hospital that broke out when an oxygen tank exploded. Iraq’s health minister resigned over the disaster.
In Romania, two deadly hospital fires within a three-month period raised concerns about the country’s ageing and overstretched healthcare system.
Last November, 10 died in a fire in an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients in the northern Romanian town of Piatra Neamt. Then in January, another blaze engulfed a ward at Bucharest’s Matei Bals hospital, killing five. Supplemental oxygen was present in both of the hospital wards.
In the aftermath of the Matei Bals fire, the hospital’s lawyer said that had a nurse not stopped the oxygen supply “we would have had an explosion.”
In a statement issued after the emergency cabinet meeting in North Macedonia Thursday, the government said it was accepting the offer of NATO allies to send fire experts to help with the investigation. The statement did not specify which countries would be involved.
With less than 30% of the country’s roughly 2 million population fully vaccinated, North Macedonia has seen a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths since late August.
Zenel Zhinipotoku in Tetovo, North Macedonia, Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed.