| The burnt exhibition grounds in Meerut on Monday, with the stalls completely destroyed. (PTI)
Lucknow, April 10: A huge fire raced through a crowded consumer fair this evening, burning alive at least 55 people who had come to buy televisions, transistors and home appliances at hefty discounts.
Police said the toll was expected to cross 100 as over a thousand people had been thronging the Brand India fair at Victoria park in Meerut when the blaze broke around 5.30 pm.
The flames, possibly sparked by a short circuit and fed by exploding gas cylinders, spread so swiftly that all three air-conditioned pandals housing some 1,000 stalls were reduced to ash in 30 minutes.
Scores of charred bodies lay grouped together in the smoking ruins with flames flickering on twisted metal structures next to them. One body lay burnt, except for a leg clad in blue jeans. Dozens lay writhing and screaming.
“In half an hour, nothing was left in the three pandals. All we could see were bodies. It looked like a makeshift morgue where bodies lay piled on each other,” said Sudhir Joshi, as he desperately looked for his sons peddling wares at the fair.
This is the first time that disaster has struck a fair in this park, where several have been held earlier. Mushrooming consumer fairs is a phenomenon that reflects the rise in purchase power as well as aspirational level in middle India.
A police official in the Meerut control room said people had got trapped as there was only one entrance and one exit to the fair ground, which were only about 5 feet wide.
“The tent was very long, extending for more than 100 metres and there was only one exit corridor, so people could come out only one by one.”
Meerut IG Narendra Bahadur Singh said it was difficult to put a figure on the toll. “All I could see was the number of women and children were higher than the men.”
A witness, Pradeep Jain, who was loitering outside the park, said all was over by the time the fire brigade arrived. People who had been lured by the 30-50 per cent discounts were left hunting for relatives by the light of torches and car headlamps as the power link had snapped.
“About 2,000 people had turned up as it was the last day of the fair. The men managed to run out, most who fell in the stampede were women and children,” he said.
The police have ruled out sabotage. “The fair was organised by a professional group (Milan Events Pvt Ltd) and some 1,000 stalls were set up. No one anticipated a fire of this kind,” R.K. Viswakarma, DIG, Meerut range, said.
The state government has ordered a high-level probe. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have expressed concern.