The death toll from the devastating blaze at a trade fair in northern India rose today to 52, officials said, while people struggled to find their relatives among the charred bodies.
At least 200 people were injured by the flames or trampled as fire swept through giant exhibition tents at a consumer electronics show in the dusty rural town of Meerut, about 400 kilometres from the city of Lucknow.
Witnesses described a horrific scene, with screaming, injured people, three enormous tents destroyed, and rescuers pulling out corpse after corpse. At least 22 ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals in the area, officials said.
“Dead bodies are strewn around. Most of them are charred beyond recognition. The bodies were dumped into trucks, jeeps and ambulances and taken away from the public glare,” said Prakash Arya, a witness reached at the scene on his mobile phone.
Authorities said most of the corpses were found near the exits.
“Apparently, some people were knocked down and crushed in the stampede as they rushed to get out of the inferno,” said Rajiv Sabharwal, senior police superintendent for the town.
“I ran for my life,” said Mahendra Singh, a shop owner who escaped with minor burns.
It wasn’t clear what caused the blaze, though a local politician, Laxmikant Bajpai, told Headlines Today TV station it may have started when plastic sheeting hanging over an air-conditioning unit caught fire.
Other officials said the fire may have been sparked by a short circuit.
Several people died overnight from their wounds.
“The toll has gone up to 52,” RM Srivastava, a senior official in the state Home Ministry, said today.
“The fire has been put out but the police are still searching for dead bodies in the rubble.”
While police scoured the ruins, desperate relatives went from hospital to hospital, looking for missing relatives.
“Some of them have come to the mortuary also, but are unable to identify the bodies,” said Pushapati Srivastava, a local official.
Television footage showed dozens of people standing outside the mortuary holding pictures of friends and relatives.
Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling coalition travelled to Meerut early today, inspecting the site of the inferno and visiting wounded people in a local hospital.
The state government announced an official investigation would be launched and said compensation would be paid to the families.
Trade fairs, where manufacturers and traders set up stalls to exhibit their wares to consumers and other businesses, are common in India. They are normally held in elaborate cloth tents set up over interconnected bamboo poles, often with little regard for safety regulations.
This was the first large-scale fair to be held in Meerut.