Fire Kills 190 Worshipers In India -- Blaze Causes Stampede Through Religious Hall

BARIPADA, India - Distraught villagers searched today for friends and family missing after a fire consumed a straw-and-thatch hall built for a Hindu festival, killing at least 190 worshipers.

Recovery workers lined up corpses in two rows on the muddy ground of the festival site. Weeping relatives filed slowly past the charred bodies, wailing or standing in silent shock if they recognized one.

The fire yesterday swept through the makeshift hall where 12,000 had gathered in an annual ceremony to seek the blessing of the late Swami Nigamananda, a Hindu leader.

Some witnesses told the Press Trust news agencythat an electrical short-circuit sparked the blaze; United News said the explosion of a cooking-gas cylinder may have been to blame.

Witnesses told Press Trust that flames sent panicked worshipers running. Many of the victims may have died in the stampede.

By midmorning, rescuers had found 154 bodies in the ruins of the hall, district magistrate Gobinda Chandra said. An additional 36 people died in hospitals, said Captain M.C. Sahoo, part of a medical team sent from a nearby army base.

Baripada, 1,250 miles southeast of New Delhi, was overwhelmed by the disaster. The town has only two fire trucks. Some of the injured were left lying on the road leading to the hospital, waiting to be treated.

Devotees of Swami Nigamananda had spent several days worshiping at an area known as Madhuban grounds on the outskirts of Baripada.

Organizers built a main meeting hall and several others to serve as living quarters, lining bamboo frames with straw mats for walls and covering the structures with thatch.

The fire broke out in the men's sleeping hall.

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

India has no federal fire-safety regulations. The Bureau of Indian Standards has recommended a set of rules, but the country's 26 states are free to adopt or reject them.