Investigators looking at possible code violations in deadly Egyptian theater fire

Survivors of a blaze that killed 32 people in a crowded theater said Tuesday that only one exit was available as the audience stampeded in panic, and authorities were looking into possible fire code violations.

Monday night's fire was believed to have begun when an actor knocked over a candle, setting alight a paper-filled set during a production at the government-run Culture Palace in Beni Suef, a farming town of 200,000 about 90 kilometers (60 miles) south of Cairo.

Prosecutors early Tuesday inspected the concrete building, which was left a hollowed-out, charred husk.

A top official from Egypt's Culture Ministry, which controls the theater, said local culture authorities had not made sure the theater's main exit could be opened in an emergency, restricting the escape to a smaller door blocked by debris at the end of the hall where the fire started.

"There was a failure to ensure the door could be opened," Mustafa Alwy told The Associated Press.

Security officials said 32 people were killed. Among them were 14 members from a theater troupe from nearby Fayoum who were performing and its director, who had designed the set, said Alwy.

The fire also injured 60 people, 18 critically, hospital and police officials said.

Fire code issues will be part of the attorney-general investigation into the tragedy, said Alwy, and if wrongdoing is proved "the law will be enforced." He did not elaborate on possible penalties.

The government requires some fire-safety measures in buildings, including fire extinguishers, but in general the rules are not strictly enforced. Alwy was unsure if the small theater destroyed in the blaze, which adjoined a larger performance complex, was equipped with fire extinguishers.

About 150-200 people were watching the Fayoum troupe performing a play called "Grab Your Dreams" when the fire broke out about 11:45 p.m.

The play was set in a zoo and the stage was done up like a cave inside one of the animal cages. The ceiling, floor and walls were covered with paper bags painted to resemble stone, and in the middle of the stage was a "mountain," also made of paper. There were candles set up all over the set, survivors said.

In the final scene, one of the actors was shaking another character to wake him and knocked over a candle, survivor Mohammed Arafat Yassin said.

The theater had two exits, but the main one was covered in the same paper as the set and was in flames, so the crowd rushed for the other, Yassin, 27, told The Associated Press from Beni Suef hospital, where he was recovering.

"The room became engulfed in flames. The flames were like an ocean spreading across the theater," said another survivor, Mohammed el-Amrousi, 23, an acting student from the northern city of Alexandria.

Yassin said he and some others managed to climb around a sheet of wood and a tangle of chairs blocking the remaining exit door, but it slowed the escape.

"Everyone was trying to save themselves and they were falling all over each other," he said. "It was like being inside a barbecue grill. Everyone was burning."

Families with relatives died in the fire will receive at least 15,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$2,600; Ђ2,080) in compensation per victim from various government ministries, said Alwy. Those injured will be given at least 8,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,385; Ђ1,110).

The tragedy was Egypt's deadliest fire since a blaze swept through a crowded passenger train south of Cairo on Feb. 20, 2002, killing 370 people, AP report.

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