Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 7 News List

59 dead in mosque blaze

IRANIAN INFERNO The majority of the casualties were women because the fire began in the women's section on the second floor and many were trampled trying to flee

AP , TEHRAN

At least 59 people died and more than 250 were injured in a blaze that raged through a Tehran mosque after a female worshipper's veil caught fire from a kerosene heater, Iran's official news agency reported.

The Arg Mosque was filled on Monday with an estimated 400 worshippers, more crowded than usual because of the Islamic month of Muharram, a holy time for Shiite Muslims. The mosque can hold 600 people.

Outside one hospital where wounded were taken, 38-year-old Mansour, wailing and beating his chest, was searching for his wife and two young daughters. He had been at work at the time of the fire.

"I am desperate. I can't find them anywhere on any list, of any hospital," said Mansour, whose last name was drowned out by his screams.

"I wish I died instead of them. I had a lot of hope for them. But now all of them are burned," the bearded black-clad Mansour said, weeping.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said the fire started when a woman's veil caught the flames of a kerosene heater on the upper floor of the mosque. The flames spread to a thick green cloth that covered the ceiling and walls of the mosque in commemoration of the holy month.

Panicked people raced for the doors and smashed windows to escape the blaze, one witness said.

Women, who pray on the second floor of the mosque separate from men, had to race down stairs and through a narrow doorway to exit. Many stumbled and were trampled in the frenzied stampede to escape.

"Pieces of burning cloth fell on the head of the worshippers, who stopped praying and smashed windows to run out of the mosque in panic," the eyewitness said, requesting anonymity.

The mosque walls were charred, carpets were burned and religious books, including the Quran, were destroyed.

Burned shoes and women's black chadors left behind by fleeing worshippers were scattered in the mosque yard.

Tehran Police Chief Brigadier General Morteza Talaie said the death toll at midnight stood at 59 people, IRNA reported.

IRNA quoted rescue workers as saying more than 250 people were injured in the fire.

Hospital records showed that 40 of the deaths and the majority of the casualties were women.

The wounded were taken to six hospitals in the capital, and police were guarding the doors to limit the entrance of emotional relatives who were desperate for news of their loved ones.

Tehran residents lined up to donate blood for the victims.

Reza Pourbaradaran, a district resident, complained that firefighters arrived too late.

"Firefighters arrived one hour after the fire broke and when serious damage had been done," he said.

TV reports said firefighters extinguished the fire an hour after it started. Workers were seen late in the evening cleaning the debris and wiping away the black smoke marks from the entrance.

Earlier reports had blamed the fire on a faulty electrical outlet, but IRNA said that theory had been discarded. It also said officials had discounted the possibility of a bomb or arson attack.

"The main cause of the fatal incident is ignoring the basic safety rules, including installation of a kerosene heater very close to a thick curtain," Talie told IRNA.

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