DAMASCUS, Syria -- Seven siblings were asleep in their apartment in the Syrian capital when a fire broke out and spread quickly, suffocating six in their bedroom and burning to death the seventh, a girl, who was stuck under a false ceiling that collapsed as she tried to flee, first responders said.
It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze late Tuesday in the Arnous family apartment on the fourth floor of a building in the Amara district in the city center. Family members speculated an electrical short circuit, while a paramedic suggested an electric heater turned on during the cold night could have been the cause.
Killed were three boys and four girls ranging in age from 3 to 13 and identified by relatives as Fares, Sidra, Seif, Mustafa, Hala, Hallah and Nadia.
The tragedy, which came amid an ongoing seven-year civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, shook residents of Damascus.
The fire occurred at about 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) when the parents were visiting the children's maternal grandmother, who was recently discharged from a hospital. Relatives said the father was informed of the fire by his sister, who lives in the opposite building. He arrived within 10 minutes but was unable to do anything because of the ferocity of the fire.
"The children were sleeping and nobody was able to reach the apartment because the fire was spreading quickly," said the siblings' paternal cousin Hadi Arnous, 35, standing outside the charred apartment.
On Wednesday, piles of rubble were being removed by firefighters and the apartment made up of three rooms was totally burned. Stairs leading to the burned apartments were charred.
Two apartments on the fourth and fifth floors were totally burned out. Construction material was brought by the Damascus governorate to start renovating the building.
The children's uncle, Yassin Arnous, who lives in the same building on the fifth floor, said the fire reached his apartment and his children were rescued by neighbors as he tried to reach his nephews and nieces.
"I ran downstairs but because of the raging fire, I could not do anything," Arnous said. "We grieve over the children. It's a big loss."
The family's apartment is in an area known for its narrow alleys, which are usually crowded until late. Yassin Arnous said that stands where vendors sell clothes and fruit probably delayed the arrival of fire fighters.
Mohammad Dalati, a neighbor who lives on the 2nd floor, said he wasn't able to reach the apartment on fire because fire had reached the building's stairs.
The fire "turned into a burning ball in less than three minutes," Dalati said. He added that the victims' cousins who were staying a floor above were rescued by people who had climbed the roof from the adjacent building.
The father of the seven children, Hassan Arnous, was at the hospital Wednesday where the bodies of his seven children are kept. Two other children, a soldier and a married daughter, were not at home when the fire occurred.
On Wednesday, state news agency SANA said the cause of the fire was not immediately known, adding that it might have been caused by an electric heater. The news agency says Prime Minister Emad Khamis visited the site late Tuesday.