NEW YORK (AP) _ A suspicious fire at a crowded social club killed seven and injured more than 30 as panicked patrons clawed against the walls and doors trying to flee, leaving those who escaped ''one step from death.''

Between 60 and 100 people were in the Bronx club known as El Hoyo (The Hole) when the blaze ignited shortly after noon Sunday, said John Mulligan, a fire department spokesman.

Five bodies were found inside the gutted club and two people died later, making the blaze the city's deadliest this year, fire officials said.

Screaming patrons in the basement club fought for the lone exit, up a stairway where the fire apparently started, authorities said. Some broke through a rear wall and were pulled to safety by firefighters.

Some who escaped joined bystanders in rushing back in to try to save others, getting in the way of firefighters and even grabbing their tools, firefighters said.

''It was sheer panic,'' said firefighter Dennis Fennell. ''It looked like people tried to claw out all of the walls.''

''We had to break a door to get to the first floor. ... Then we had to break in the gate and some people helped from outside to open the gate,'' said Luis Done, one of those who escaped.

''I was one step from death. I feel very lucky.''

''All of a sudden I saw the flames come from the bar area. There was a lot of flames. It was very fast. All of a sudden, whoosh,'' said another patron, Francisco Delarosa, 32.

Investigators were testing material from the basement for the presence of flammable liquid, according to Mulligan, who said the fire was suspicious because it spread rapidly.

Up to 150 firefighters battled nearly three hours to bring the fire under control.

''There was so much fire blowing out into the street that water didn't have any effect on it in the initial stages,'' said fire Capt. James Gallagher.

The club was in a low-ceiling, 50-by-75-foot basement of a row of stores and divided into smaller rooms.

The bodies of four men and one woman were found toward the front of the club, Gallagher said.

He said one ''poor guy was found with his face in the wall like he was trying to crawl into a corner.''

There was no evidence of a posted license at the club, Mulligan said. Taverns are prohibited in basements and there weren't enough exits to satisfy building codes, said Deputy Fire Chief Philip J. Burns.

Firefighters were ''met by hysterical civilians streaming up the staircase,'' Mulligan said. ''One firefighter told me he literally had to fight his way down the stairs.''

Most escaped through the club's small front door and narrow staircase, but others were able to break through a wall near the back, he said. A second door on the side of the club was locked shut, he said.

Firefighter Joseph Kisonas said hysterical people outside the club ''were trying to fight the tools away from us'' so they could re-enter and help others.

Three patrons broke through a rear wall ''and our guys pulled them out of the rubble and gypsum board,'' Mulligan said.

Mayor Edward I. Koch, who toured the scene, described the club as a ''rabbit warren.''

''It's clear that it should have never been opened in the first place,'' he said of the club.

Most of the injured, including six firefighters and two Emergency Medical Service technicians, suffered smoke inhalation and were taken to hospitals, Mulligan said.

Sunday's fire was reminiscent of an Oct. 24, 1976, arson fire at a Bronx social club that killed 25 and injured more than 30. Three men, including one who quarreled with a woman at the club, were convicted of setting the fire on the club's only staircase.