TIVAOUANE, Senegal — The boy had no name yet.
He was only a day old on Wednesday when a fire broke out in the neonatal ward of the hospital where he was born, in the holy city of Tivaouane in central Senegal. He was on the third floor of the maternity ward; his mother, still recovering from a cesarean section, was the first and hadn’t seen him since.
Eleven newborn babies died in the fire, destroying their families and shocking the West African nation, which has suffered a series of fatal incidents in maternity wards in recent years.
Relatives of the newborn boy had flocked to the hospital to celebrate his arrival. When the fire started at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, his aunt, Mame Anta Gueye, was praying in the hospital complex.
“We were here,” Ms. Gueye said on Thursday, sitting with relatives near the ward where her cousin had died and where her sister was grieving. “And we couldn’t do anything.”
The fire at the Mame Abdou Aziz Sy Dabakh hospital in Tivaouane was caused by a short circuit, according to the city’s mayor, Demba Diop. But on Thursday there were few details about how the fire had spread and whether any adults — hospital staff or parents — had been in the room with the newborns.
Three babies have been rescued, Mr Diop said on local radio.
Grieving families waited for news in the shade of neem trees outside the hospital on Thursday afternoon, desperate for more details about what had happened, why, and when they could retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.
The hospital grounds showed the troubled state of Senegal’s health care system, with discarded stretchers and broken hospital beds, as well as syringes, bedside monitors and microscopes.
A streak of black soot marked the area where the babies had slept, rising from a top-floor window of the turquoise-and-white-painted building to where the roof met the nearly cloudless sky.
El Hadj Gueye looked up at the broken windows and the smoke-stained building. He had no words. His son had died in the fire.
This was the second tragedy to hit the family in less than a month. In the same hospital on May 4, the wife of Mr. Gueye, Ramatou Laye Gueye, died giving birth to the baby. Mr. Gueye had given the boy his mother’s name as his middle name, in memory of her: Mohamed Ramatou Gueye.
Next to Mr. Gueye was Moura Diallo, his father-in-law. He lived in the capital Dakar, but had come to Tivaouane to mourn his daughter. Now he also mourned a grandson.
mr. Diallo blamed the lack of adequate equipment and training for health care nurses.
“We can do nothing but suffer,” he said.
A series of deadly incidents that officials said were avoidable have raised serious questions among the Senegalese public about the state of the country’s public health system, which, according to a national plan, faces a significant lack of health workers, financial resources, infrastructure and equipment. outlining development priorities for the period 2019-2028.
Last month, Astou Sokhna, a pregnant woman in her thirties, died at a hospital in the northern city of Louga after her requests for a cesarean section were ignored for hours. The unborn child also died.
In April 2021, four newborns died in another hospital fire attributed to a failure of a maternity ward’s air conditioning system.
On Thursday, Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr was fired just hours after visiting the grieving families.
President Macky Sall has declared three days of national mourning and the events of the Dakar Biennale, West Africa’s largest art event, have been paused.
“I extend my deepest condolences to their mothers and their families,” Mr Sall wrote on Twitter.
The office of the president said Mr. Sall would cut a trip abroad and would… visit the families of the victims Saturday in Tivaouane, the center of the Tijanis, one of the most influential Muslim Sufi sects in Senegal, and a city that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
Senegalese authorities said six people had already been questioned as part of the investigation into the fire.
But opposition politicians argued that investigating those responsible was not enough.
Gorgui Massamba Boye, a local representative of the opposition Pastef party, said it is crucial to anticipate possible tragedies.
“The lack of rigor and laxity cost the lives of many innocent people,” he said.
On social media, other politicians blamed the president directly.
“Again, babies were burned alive in a public hospital,” Mamadou Lamine Diallo, an opposition lawmaker, posted on Twitter. “That’s unacceptable, Macky Sall.”
Despite all the lives lost, at least one baby was born in the hospital on Wednesday evening.
Hours before the fire broke out, Aminata Diaw’s contractions had begun. She was rushed to hospital.
At 9 p.m., as her contractions intensified, the fire spread to the third floor. She was evacuated from the maternity ward and taken to the road opposite the hospital. After the firefighters extinguished the fire, Mrs. Diaw was one of the first to be chased back inside and an hour later she gave birth to a girl.
On Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Diaw’s sister-in-law, Kiné Diop, said that mother and daughter were safe and sound and would spend the night together, but that Mrs. Diaw was still struggling to process what had happened.
“She gave birth while others lost theirs in the same building,” Ms Diop said.
Elian Peltier reported from Tivaouane, Senegal and Ruth Maclean from Dakar.