April 10, 2006

Indian fair blaze kills 51

By Surojit Gupta and Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - At least 51 people died and 100 were
injured on Monday when a huge fire broke out at a crowded
consumer electronics fair in the northern Indian city of Meerut
and the death toll could rise further, officials said.

Witnesses and officials said a short circuit had caused the
fire, which spread rapidly to the polythene sheets covering a
temporary enclosure where air conditioners, television sets and
other home appliances were on show.

Hundreds of people rushed along a corridor toward a single
exit in the long tented structure. The blaze soon engulfed two
neighboring tents.

"There were three sheds which were centrally
air-conditioned and to keep the cooling on they used polythene
sheets over them," R.M. Srivastava, home secretary for the
state of Uttar Pradesh, told Aaj Tak television.

"There was a short circuit which caused the fire and
because of the sheets the fire spread rapidly. People did not
get time to get out as there was only one exit point."

Television channels showed footage of charred bodies lying
grouped together in smoking ruins with flames flickering on
twisted structures next to them.

One body lay burned, except for one leg still clad in blue

"People came out of the tents on fire and tried to lie down
on the ground," witness Yudhvir Singh said. "There were some
whose faces were burned and some whose heads were burned. These
were the only people who could get out."

Senior Uttar Pradesh home department official S.K. Agarwal
told Reuters the toll could climb.

"Fifty-one bodies have been extricated so far and there is
a possibility of more (deaths) as they still don't have any
count of people in the hospitals," Agarwal said.


Police Inspector-General N.B. Singh told Reuters there were
between 45 and 50 bodies in the mortuary, while Srivastava said
many of the dead were women and children.

Medical officials said at least 100 people were injured,
many with serious burns. They were rushed to hospitals in
Meerut and in the capital New Delhi, 80 km (50 miles) to the
southwest, which has better medical facilities for serious

In Meerut, anxious relatives crowded hospitals, some of
them wailing.

"There is no trace of my wife and I can't find my brother
either," a middle-aged man told Aaj Tak. "Nothing is right,
people told me that they were trapped inside."

"... there was a short circuit and the curtains caught
fire," he said.

The fire broke out in the late afternoon, witnesses said.
As the blaze spread, people ran through the crowds with hoses,
desperately trying to douse the flames.

Ambulances and fire engines drove through the narrow
streets leading to the site of the fair while armed police were
deployed to control panicky crowds.

Consumer fairs are increasingly popular in India's smaller
cities and towns as fast economic growth has sharply increased
disposable income in the last decade.

But safety procedures are still ignored in many aspects of
public life. Ninety children died in a fire in a school in the
southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in July 2004.

(Additional reporting by Shailendra Bhatnagar and Nitin
Luthra in New Delhi and Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow)