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178 people die in Orissa inferno; 50 critical

A major fire engulfed the 46th annual devotees conference of Nigamananda at Madhuban, near Baripada in Orissa on Sunday. More than 178 devotees were killed in the tragedy.

The death toll is estimated to go up further as more than 50 devotees are still battling for their lives in the hospital with more than 60 per cent burn injuries.

According to state Home Secretary Sanjeeb Hota, about 165 victims were shifted to the Baripada Sadar hospital with burn injuries. One of them later succumbed to injuries at the hospital.

He said the fire broke out at the venue at 1530 hours and spread rapidly due to the makeshift straw huts made for male devotees. The fire tenders present on the spot, however, prevented the flames from spreading to the tents meant for the female devotees.

The wind fanned the flames making its impact more devastating. Altogether eight makeshift camps were completely gutted in the fire.

The fire broke out when the devotees were resting inside the camps after lunch. Most of the children present at the venue were saved as they were sleeping with their mothers in the women's camps.

Most of the devotees were trapped inside the camp and could not escape through the narrow gates. According to an injured devotee, about 1,000 people must have been suffered burn injuries in the camps.

According to Additional District Magistrate Gobinda Chandra Sahu, 154 bodies had so far been recovered from the debris. Unofficial reports, however, put the toll at over 250.

Sudarshan Patnaik, a delegate attending the religious conference, said over 6,000 devotees were inside the eight camps when the mishap occurred.

Eight children were admitted to hospital in a critical condition. Later, one of them succumbed to injuries.

Although the cause of the fire was not immediately ascertained, an eyewitness said a short circuit in a camp led to the fire. However, a preliminary report said a gas cylinder in the makeshift kitchen had burst, causing the fire.

More than 15,000 devotees from different parts of the state had congregated at the venue to witness the concluding session of the religious conference.

The scene at the Sadar hospital was disheartening. Hundreds of injured devotees lay in the verandah as all the wards were packed with the injured.

Some devotees were also found lying on the road in front of the hospital in the absence of any space inside.

Since there are no special facilities for burn injuries in the hospital, the district authorities have made arrangements for shifting the seriously injured people to the SCB medical college and hospital at Cuttack.

Expressing his condolences, Chief Minister J B Patnaik announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 25,000 to the next-of-kin of the dead and Rs 10,000 to the seriously injured.

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