Bangkok Post, August 7, 2001
Mental asylum blaze kills 25, four nabbed
Madras, AFP - A fire ripped through a privately-run mental asylum in southern India yesterday, killing at least 25 inmates, many of whom had been chained to their beds, police and eyewitnesses said.
The asylum was one of more than a dozen located in the tiny Muslim pilgrimage town of Erwadi in Tamil Nadu state, where there is a shrine believed to hold curative powers for people suffering from mental illness.
"Police at the scene have so far recovered 25 bodies which were charred beyond recognition," police inspector Palai Swamy told AFP from nearby Ramanaitphura town, some 500km south of Madras. Eleven of the victims were women.
According to Insp Swamy, the fire broke out in the early hours of yesterday morning and quickly engulfed the "asylum," which was little more than a hut with a thatched roof. "Only a few people managed to escape," Insp Swamy said, confirming reports that many of the inmates had been chained up for the night.
A total of 46 people were inside the building when the fire broke out. Eighteen were rescued, of whom five were taken to hospital where their condition was described as serious. Staff said three inmates appeared to have run away.
The police were investigating a report from the owner of the asylum, Syed Mohideen Pasha, who cited staff members as saying a gang had set fire to the asylum. Mr Pasha himself faces possible prosecution, and four people have already been arrested for negligence in connection with the disaster. "Action will also be taken against the asylum owners who did not provide adequate facility for the inmates," said district police chief Sanjeev Kumar. According to Chief Kumar, families were charged up to 20,000 rupees (19,600 baht) [$436] a year for their relatives to stay at the facility.
"The cause of the fire is under investigation. There are two versions: One that the fire was caused after a lighted lamp was knocked down, or some person had thrown a [lit] cigarette butt," Chief Kumar said, while adding that the reports of arson were not being ruled out.
Local reporters cited eyewitnesses as saying the corpses of nearly all those who died were still manacled to their beds after the fire had been put out.