At least 45 killed, 160 injured as fire sweeps through Indian trade fair

A fire swept through a trade fair in north India on Monday, leaving at least 45 people dead and 160 injured as terrified crowds stampeded to the exits to escape the flames, authorities said.

The fire occurred during a consumer electronics show at a tent complex in the dusty rural town of Meerut, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) 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.

Witnesses said each tent had only one entrance and exit setting off a panic as people tried to escape.

"I ran for my life," said Mahendra Singh, a shopowner who got out with minor burns.

The fire, which began around 5:30 p.m., was fully extinguished by about 8 p.m., but rescuers were still searching for survivors in what was left of the tent complex, which had been erected in a park in the town center.

"At this point we have 45 dead. The number may go up," said Rakesh Tomar, a Meerut police officer. K. M. Singh, the state's chief medical officer, said at least 160 people had been taken to local hospitals.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, though a local politician, Laxmikant Bajpai, told the TV station Headlines Today that it may have started when plastic sheeting hanging over an air-conditioning unit caught fire.

Thousands of people had been expected on Monday, the last day of the fair, to see the washing machines, stereos and other electronic goods on display as well as to enjoy the air conditioning.

The intense summer heat of north India has already begun, and temperatures reached nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) Monday in Meerut.

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 and often with little regard for safety regulations, reports AP.

O.Ch.