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India searches for cause of fire; confusion over death toll

February 25, 1997

BARIPADA, India (AP) _ The scores of charred bodies lined in neat rows have been taken away by relatives or cremated in a mass ceremony. Families and townspeople are grieving. And investigators are trying to determine the cause of one of India’s worst fires in years.

Witnesses say a spark from an electrical short ignited the thatch roof and straw walls of a prayer hall Sunday night, quickly killing nearly 200 worshipers.

Authorities aren’t so sure of the cause and were at work today inspecting the field on the outskirts of Baripada where the Hindu festival had been held.

At least 12,000 devotees participated in an annual three-day ceremony to seek the blessing of Swami Nigamananda, a late Hindu spiritual leader.

Thousands of them had gathered Sunday in the hall to pray.

``The roof in the middle of the hall was on fire within seconds. I tried to run in, because my grandfather and uncle were inside. But people were running out. They were pushing me,″ said Sharad Das, who escaped unhurt but lost his grandfather and uncle in the blaze.

The two exits in the 300-foot-square structure were not enough to cope with some 2,000 men rushing to escape, Das said.

The disaster left Baripada, a small town 1,250 miles southeast of New Delhi, overwhelmed and confused.

The exact death toll was not clear today, with some officials putting it at 181 and others at 190.

About 70 people, some with life-threatening burns, remained hospitalized today.

The district official charged with determining the cause of the blaze, Tarun Kanti Misra, refused to offer any preliminary assessment and told reporters he was not sure when he would complete his investigation.

Meanwhile, festival organizers dismantled two temporary structures built for the festival.

Bodies that had been lined up in two rows on the muddy field the day before were gone, either claimed by relatives or cremated in a mass ceremony Monday night.

The Baripada fire was India’s deadliest since 1995, when more than 500 people were killed by fire in a tent where a school play was being performed in a village near New Delhi. That blaze was blamed on an electrical short.

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