At least 32 dead in Egypt theatre blaze

At least 32 people perished in a fire in an Egyptian theatre apparently set off by lighted candles used on stage, with the blaze provoking a deadly stampede as burning spectators tried to flee.

Actors and journalists were among the victims who died during the performance. The fire is the worst Egypt has witnessed in years and sent shockwaves through the country’s artistic community.

The flames swept through the theatre in the Nile town of Beni Suef south of Cairo late on Monday.

Footage aired by Egyptian public television showed a man—his face distorted by pain and the flesh on his arms torn off by the flames—throwing himself to the ground and struggling to rip his clothes off.

A man could be seen using a small fire extinguisher to battle the flames. Safety regulations in public places are rarely enforced in Egypt.

Hospital sources told the official Mena news agency that some of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition, while 12 of the 37 wounded were in serious condition and some had to be evacuated to the capital for treatment.

Witnesses quoted by the Egyptian press said it took firefighters more than two hours to fight put out the fire, which took hold at about 11.30pm local time, reducing much of the theatre to ashes and destroying palm trees nearby.

One witness told the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper that the fire transformed the theatre into “hell”.

The blaze apparently started when lighted candles used by the actors set fire to the stage curtains, Mena reported.
The flames spread high and rapidly, fuelled by combustible items that were part of the set’s decor, including paper and wood, sending vast plumes of smoke into the air.

It provoked panic among the crowd as theatre-goers attempted to escape the blaze, with many of the victims believed to have been trampled underfoot.

Minister of Health Mohammed Awad Tag Eddin told state television that 16 of those injured suffered burns exceeding 60%. He later increased the number to 18.

“These are the cases we consider critical,” he said.

He made the comment after inspecting the site and visiting the injured in hospitals. The ministers of culture and social affairs also visited.

“There were also deaths due to asphyxiation,” said Anas Gaafar, governor of Beni Suef, which lies about 150km south of Cairo.

The performance was part of an experimental theatre festival that brought together actors from the Mediterranean cities of Port Said and Alexandria.

Interior ministry sources said the dead included three actors, three students from the arts academy and three journalists, two of them from state-owned newspapers and one from the opposition al-Wafd daily.

Firefighters rescued about 60 people and local health officials mobilised 25 ambulances to evacuate the injured.

Judicial sources said an investigation has been launched into the incident. A funeral was scheduled to take place in Cairo later on Tuesday.

President Hosni Mubarak has ordered the immediate distribution of assistance “to families of the victims”, Mena quoted his spokesperson Suleiman Awad as saying.

Mubarak is running for re-election on Wednesday, in what will be the country’s first contested presidential election.—Sapa-AFP

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