The Associated Press
Saturday, September 27, 2008
CAIRO, Egypt: A fire destroyed the main hall of Egypt's National Theater in the heart of the downtown Cairo Saturday, wounding three firefighters, a civil defense officer said.Billowing white smoke filled the busy Ataba Square just after sunset as 22 engines responded to the alarms. Dozens of riot police also deployed to keep back onlookers. A major general with the civil defense on the scene described the fire as "almost contained," after high winds briefly drove flames into neighboring shops and buildings. Three firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. The official smoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Brig. Gen. Nasr Zakaria of the civil defense operations room told the state MENA news agency that the fire began with an electrical short that caused an explosion in the theater's air conditioning system. The fire started just before the sunset evening meal during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan while workers were performing maintenance on theater's electrical systems. "There was a big blast, then smoke started rising from the roof," said Mahmoud Osman, the owner of a shop across the square. "Then flames engulfed the whole roof area and damaged parts of the wall."
The theater was original built in 1935, but had been recently renovated.The building would have been practically deserted due to the evening meal, but was scheduled to perform popular poetry recitations later on that evening. In August, Egypt's upper house of parliament was devastated by massive fire, also in the downtown area. That fire provoked popular outrage at the incompetence of firefighters and it was described as the latest failing of a government unable to stem rising prices of basic staples. Press reports at the time focused on poor training of firefighters and the absence of sprinklers or a fire management plan for the building — features which are rare throughout Egypt, where safety rules are nonexistent or lax. Few buildings in Cairo even have smoke alarms.