Thousands of Iranians filled a giant mosque in Tehran on Monday to pay their respects to 16 firefighters who were killed while battling a blaze atop an iconic high-rise.
People of all ages attended the funeral, where a senior cleric described the firefighters as martyrs. News helicopters circled overhead, capturing the scene for state television.
The heavily choreographed services were held in the highly secured mosque, apparently to deter protests by dissidents who have accused the government of negligence in the firefighters' deaths in the Plasco Tower, which caught fire and collapsed Jan. 19.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the firefighters as national heroes, comparing them to soldiers who died in the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.
The interior minister said last week that the fire was sparked by an electrical short circuit in the top floors of the crowded, 17-story building, which then collapsed. Initial reports from state-run media said 50 firefighters had been killed, but after nine days rescue crews had retrieved the bodies of only 15 firefighters and four civilians. One firefighter died at a hospital.
A funeral had been scheduled for Thursday, a day off for most Iranians, but authorities moved the services to Monday at 8:30 a.m. in what critics said was an effort to reduce turnout.
Still, a large crowd thronged the mosque in northeast Tehran that is usually reserved for the theocracy's main weekly prayer every Friday.
Alireza Mosavian, 30,who took a few hours off work to attend, said he regretted that the firefighters were using outdated equipment.
"I feel obliged to come here," Mosavian said. "They sacrificed their lives for the people."
A dentist, Naser Fafaei, said the city was in shock over the deaths and the loss of a building that had symbolized modernity in Iran since it was built in the 1960s.
"The deaths of the firefighters have impacted the city culture," Fafaei said. "I can see whenever a firetruck starts its siren on the roads now, all the cars make way. It wasn't that way before."
City council officials blame the fire on the owners of garment shops in the building, which many had long feared was a fire hazard. But many critics lay responsibility at the feet of the government, which they accused of failing to properly equip firefighters and emergency rescue teams even as the ruling class enriches itself through corruption and local officials harass street vendors.
Several celebrities in the sports and cinema world called for officials to resign in the wake of the incident.
Adel Ferdouspour, host of a soccer program on state television, said in a live show last week: "If this tragic event had happened anywhere else in the world, some officials or middle or top managers would have resigned. Why has nothing happened here?"
Newspapers close to Iran's reformists reported that Ferdouspour was reprimanded by his supervisors for the remarks.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
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