Groom among 45 dead in marriage hall fire in India

Saturday, January 24, 2004

MADRAS, India -- Panicked guests tried to fight their way through flames and stampeded down a narrow hallway after fire struck a makeshift wedding hall Friday in southern India, killing 45 people -- including the groom. The bride, one of about 60 people injured, was hospitalized in serious condition. The early morning blaze fire occurred in Srirangam, a famous Hindu temple town 200 miles south of Madras, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state. Police speculated that an electrical fault ignited the thatch roof of a pavilion set up for the party on the terrace of a one-story building.

The fire spread quickly.

Wedding guest S. Rangayyan, who was standing near the exit, described a horrific scene of screaming guests trying to get to the building's sole stairwell, which was only wide enough for one person to go down at a time.

"Old people, women and children could not force their way out," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Santhana Krishnan, a state agricultural official whose aunt and uncle were hospitalized, said witnesses told him the burning roof collapsed on the guests.

"They all panicked and ran in all directions. They stepped on each other," Krishnan.

Rangayyan said weddings are normally held in the building's ground-floor hall, but this one was moved to the makeshift pavilion because there were so many guests.

The bride, Jaishree Ramanathan, a 35-year-old teacher, was in serious condition, said K. Manivasan, the top administrator for Tiruchi district in southern Tamil Nadu state.

Many of the dead and injured were co-workers of the groom, Guru Raghavender, 38, at an insurance office, Rangayyan said.

Besides the groom, the dead included 20 women and six children, Manivasan said.

The wedding was held in the morning, because Friday was an auspicious day on the Hindu calendar and marriage halls were fully booked across the town.

District Police Commissioner Sunil Kumar Singh said the fire was probably caused by an electrical short-circuit. Press Trust of India quoted other police as saying a string of lights had sparked the blaze. Some witnesses told TV stations that a man with a video camera had just plugged in a high intensity light when the fire started.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, said payments of $1,100 will be made to the families of the dead. Grants of $330 will go to people seriously injured, and $130 will be given to those with minor injuries, she said.

The Indian government usually makes payments to victims of high-profile tragedies. ------

AP Correspondent S. Srinivasan in Bangalore, India, contributed to this story.

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