TIVAOUANE, Senegal (Reuters) -Diali Kaba's mother woke her up on Thursday morning with terrifying news: There had been a fire at the hospital in their town in Senegal where Kaba's two-week-old daughter was being cared for, and 11 babies were dead.
The two women rushed to the Mame Abdou Aziz Sy Dabakh hospital together and Kaba was allowed in to find out if her child was among the victims, while her mother Ndeye Absa Gueye waited anxiously outside.
"I have my grand-daughter here, she has been here for two weeks. I have come to see if she is one of them," she said.
A few minutes later, Kaba emerged in tears. Her baby was among the dead. The two women embraced, both weeping, until Kaba was helped into a car and driven home to grieve.
Tivaouane Mayor Diop Sy said on RFM radio that a short-circuit had caused the fire in the neonatal ward and it had spread in less than five minutes. He said two nurses escaped but could not save the babies in their incubators.
Amadou Kanar Diop, a risk and security expert who inspected the unit, said the walls were charred and the staff on duty appeared to have been quickly overwhelmed.
"It can be seen that they used several canisters of fire extinguishers," he told Reuters outside the hospital.
The tragedy exacerbated public anger over previous incidents in Senegalese hospitals. Four babies died in a hospital fire in the northern town of Linguere last year, and a woman and her unborn baby died in April after a hospital denied her a Caesarean section during a protracted labour.
"We call for all necessary measures to be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again in our country. Never again," said opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi, announcing that it was suspending all political activities for 72 hours.
Public health experts have repeatedly warned that many underfunded, understaffed African hospitals had been stretched beyond their capacities by the COVID pandemic, leaving them unable to maintain acceptable safety standards.
Tivaouane, located about 120 km (75 miles) east of the capital Dakar, is a busy road transport hub and holy city that regularly attracts large numbers of Muslim pilgrims from all over the west African country.
The city woke up to the news of the 11 baby deaths, which was first confirmed late on Wednesday night by President Macky Sall.
"We all share this pain," said local resident Ousmane Kane. "They (the mothers) suffered with the hope that their babies would live. But we have to accept the will of Allah. He gave them babies and took them back. The whole of Senegal is in mourning."
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon)