360 die as fire engulfs school prize day

MORE THAN 360 parents and children died yesterday after a fire raged through a school prizegiving day ceremony in northern India and trapped people under a giant burning tent. According to hospital officials half of the dead were children. Another 120 people were badly injured.

Most of the children who died were between five and 10 years old. They had gathered for the end-of-term prize day in the small town of Dabwali in the state of Haryana, north of New Delhi. Local authorities said the fire engulfed the area within minutes and set off pandemonium by causing the blazing tent to collapse on the audience.

The ceremony, watched by the children's families, was being held in the tent when the blaze started. "Many of them were burnt to death, and the others were killed in a stampede to escape the burning tent," one witness said.

The fire was being blamed on an electrical short-circuit which roared up the tent and ignited the overhead canopy. Several gas cylinders in the tent exploded, witnesses said.

The tent at the Rajiv Marriage Hall in Dabwali, about 140km from New Delhi, had only one small exit, according to the witnesses, so that when the blaze flared up, many of the 1,500 crowded into the tent were unable to escape.

Families that did not die in falling sheets of flame were crushed in the chaos as panicked parents ran to rescue their children and then fought their way to the exit. "The fire engulfed the entire tent within three to five minutes," an Indian official said.

Dabwali's only hospital could not handle the mass of badly injured people, and many victims died in agony from their burns while waiting for ambulances to arrive from the nearby towns of Sirsa and Bhatinda. The most badly burnt victims were driven to the state capital, Chandigarh, five hours away on a bad, bumpy road. Police have begun an inquiry into how the fire was caused and why the marriage tent had only one exit.

Authorities declared three days of official mourning in Haryana after the tragedy, which was India's worst since 350 people were killed in a train accident last August in the northern city of Ferozabad. Officials said that most of the bodies pulled from the embers were those of children in school uniform.

Authorities said that once many parents had seen how overburdened the local hospital was, they rushed their injured children to private clinics or back home to die.

Many Dabwali officials were in the tent when the fire began.