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Deadly Blaze Devastates Downtown Cairo Neighborhood

  • Heather Murdock

A fireman folds a fire extinguisher tube after his truck runs out of water in a busy, commercial area downtown Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA /Hamada Elrasam)

A fireman folds a fire extinguisher tube after his truck runs out of water in a busy, commercial area downtown Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA /Hamada Elrasam)

A fire that began late Sunday night continued to smolder through Wednesday afternoon in the crowded Attaba area of downtown Cairo.

Three people were killed, according to reports, but locals insisted that was the death toll on the first day only. Nine were killed in all, they said.

“The dead included Sudanese people who were working here,” said 20-year-old Khaled Ali, whose father owns a burnt-out shoe store in the neighborhood. “Everyday the firefighters discover some new tragedy and we don’t know when it will finish.”

This comes amid a series of fires across the country in the past week that officials say were almost all accidental. The downtown fire was described as an electrical fire by some officials, while others said it was a kitchen fire.

The fire is believed to have started in this hotel structure on late Sunday night and continued burning though Wednesday, May 11, 2016, Cairo. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

The fire is believed to have started in this hotel structure on late Sunday night and continued burning though Wednesday, May 11, 2016, Cairo. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

“Nobody knows who started this fire,” said 48-year-0ld Sayed Ahmed, a shop worker.

“The firefighters said it was electric the governor said it was someone cooking. And I don’t understand why they couldn’t control the fire sooner?”

Regardless of the cause, businesses in the area were devastated, according to Haj Mohamed Shalby, a shopkeeper. Normally, the area is packed with street vendors and shoppers in busy markets. Now the streets are covered in charred remains of furniture and goods.

“I have eight children. Eight,” said Ahmed. “Where should I go now? Please tell me where to go with my children now? How do we solve this problem?”

Hundreds of businesses and apartments have been destroyed and local media estimates the downtown fire alone destroyed $45 million worth of property.

Local media estimates this fire destroyed hundreds of apartments and businesses among the roughly $45 million in property loses in Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

Local media estimates this fire destroyed hundreds of apartments and businesses among the roughly $45 million in property loses in Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

Conspiracy theories

Foul play is only suspected in a single blaze that broke out Thursday in a government building, according to state-owned media, and two people have been arrested.

However, fear and suspicion surround the rash of fires. Some conspiracy theories blame the spate of fires on Islamic State or Muslim Brotherhood efforts to destabilize the government. Others blame authorities who have in the past called for street vendors to be replaced by regulated businesses in downtown Cairo.

Officials say three people were killed but locals insist the death toll rose to nine in the days that followed the official announcement. May 11, 2016, Cairo. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

Officials say three people were killed but locals insist the death toll rose to nine in the days that followed the official announcement. May 11, 2016, Cairo. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

The fires also may be getting more attention in the local press than they normally would, according to some local journalists. Tensions between the media and the government right now have left many news sources focusing on non-controversial disasters, like fires.

“There is no other big news happening on the ground other than fires,” said Shamf el-Din, a local TV reporter attending a rally outside the Journalist Syndicate Thursday evening. “And the ongoing journalists’ protest.”

Shop owners complain they have no insurance to cover their loses after this fire in Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

Shop owners complain they have no insurance to cover their loses after this fire in Cairo on May 11, 2016. (VOA/Hamada Elrasam)

More pressing than who did it, locals said, is what happens next. The government says it will compensate business owners and the families of the dead and wounded.

But for many who live and work in the neighborhood help is not coming fast enough.

“I’ve been on the streets with my children since the day before yesterday,” said Nasser Mohammad. “Has anyone asked me if I need help? My apartment was on fire and what wasn’t burnt was stolen.”

Hamada Elrasam contributed this report.

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