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 towards a single exit in the long tented structure. The blaze soon engulfed two neighbouring tents.
“There were three sheds which were centrally airconditioned 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 burnt, except for one leg still clad in blue jeans.
Toll may climb further
“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 burnt and some whose heads were burnt. 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 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 cases.
‘No trace of my wife’
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.