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Egypt Probes Violations in Theater Fire

September 6, 2005

BENI SUEF, Egypt (AP) _ Survivors of a blaze that killed 32 people in a crowded theater said Tuesday that only one exit was available as the audience stampeded in panic, and authorities were looking into possible fire code violations.

Monday night’s fire was believed to have begun when an actor knocked over a candle, setting alight a paper-filled set during a production at the government-run Culture Palace in Beni Suef, a farming town of 200,000 about 60 miles south of Cairo.

Security officials said prosecutors inspected the theater Tuesday. The concrete building was left a hollowed-out, charred husk.

Security officials said 32 people were killed. Among them were three actors from a theater troupe from nearby Fayoum who were performing and its director, who had designed the set, said Culture Palace director Samir Khalili. The fire injured 60 people, 18 critically.

The building was run by the Culture Ministry and fire code issues will be part of the investigation, said Mustafa Alwy, a high-ranking ministry official. The government requires some fire-safety measures in buildings, including fire extinguishers, but in general the rules are not strictly enforced.

About 150-200 people were watching the Fayoum troupe performing a play called ``Grab Your Dreams″ when the fire broke out about 11:45 p.m.

The play was set in a zoo and the stage was done up like a cave inside one of the animal cages. The ceiling, floor and walls were covered with paper bags painted to resemble stone, and in the middle of the stage was a ``mountain,″ also made of paper. There were candles set up all over the set, survivors said.

In the final scene, one of the actors was shaking another character to wake him and knocked over a candle, survivor Mohammed Arafat Yassin said.

The theater had two exits, but one was covered in the same paper as the set and was in flames, so the crowd rushed for the other, Yassin, 27, told The Associated Press from Beni Suef hospital, where he was recovering.

``The room became engulfed in flames. The flames were like an ocean spreading across the theater,″ said another survivor, Mohammed el-Amrousi, 23, an acting student from the northern city of Alexandria.

Yassin said he and some others managed to climb around the piece of wood blocking the remaining exit door, but it slowed the escape.

``Everyone was trying to save themselves and they were falling all over each other,″ he said. ``It was like being inside a barbecue grill. Everyone was burning.″

The tragedy was Egypt’s deadliest fire since a blaze swept through a crowded passenger train south of Cairo on Feb. 20, 2002, killing 370 people.

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