The audience thought the smoke was part of the special effects


Most of the victims in Friday's fire at a Delhi cinema house suffocated to death.

Delhi police and fire brigade sources said most of the victims died of asphyxiation when they were trapped in thick smoke and intense heat generated by the burning of about 50 cars parked right below the Uphaar cinema hall where a transformer burst, causing the fire.

The death toll was confirmed on Saturday morning at 60, with 41 bodies lying at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and 19 at the Safdarjung hospital. Eleven people are battling for life at the AIIMS intensive care unit.

The police arrested four Uphaar cinema managers -- R K Sharma, A S Chowdhry, K L Malhotra and N S Chopra -- on charges of negligence on Saturday morning. The police have secured remand for the managers as part of the inquiry being conducted by the deputy police commissioner (south), Additional Police Commissioner Maxwell Pereira said. The fire brigade is conducting a parallel inquiry.

Both inquiries will cover possible criminal negligence on the part of the civic authorities and the theatre management in ensuring safety norms in the building that housed the cinema hall. Uphaar, which is located in the posh Green Park area of south Delhi, can seat 1,200 people.

Fire brigade personnel said about 50 fire tenders fought the flames for about an hour before it was put out. They admitted they took about half an hour to reach the theatre because of dense peak hour traffic.

The injured said they began to feel suffocated around 1645 hours when smoke started entering the cinema hall through the ventilators. This was followed by unbearable heat. Uphaar is located on the first floor of the five storeyed complex, just above the parking area.

Tragedy struck when the transformer in the parking lot burst, setting afire the vehicles parked there.

Most of those killed were watching Border from the balcony area; spectators in the lower stalls managed to flee.

One of the survivors said the audience initially thought the smoke collecting inside the hall was part of the special effects in the movie which was then showing a war scene. The film is based on what happened at Longewala in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

Uphaar had only recently been renovated and its sound system modernised. There was no damage to the screen or to the seats, but the parking lot was completely gutted.

Before fire brigade personnel arrived on the scene, local residents, shopkeepers and those shopping in the major markets in the Green Park and Yousuf Sarai areas broke all the theatre's glass doors and windows, and rescued many of those trapped inside.

Some people jumped from the balcony into the hall below, not finding any escape route in the balcony area. One rescuer said a woman carrying a child jumped from the lobby window into the street. He said he caught her baby, saving the child from injury. At least three people jumped from the second floor staircase window into the street below to escape the fire.

Eyewitnesses said the police reached the cinema hall within ten minutes and joined the rescue operation. Police officers said at least 48 police control room vehicles were summoned from all over the capital as no ambulance was available to carry the dead and injured to the hospitals.

Most of those killed in the fire were declared dead on arrival by the doctors. Almost all the bodies bore no signs of burns or other injuries, confirming that the victims had died of suffocation.

The bodies lay on the floor in the AIIMS casualty ward where people poured in crying. Police jeeps were being used late in the night to take the bodies home after their relatives had identified them.

Raman Sidhu, director at a foreign bank, sat shell-shocked in a corner of the AIIMS hospital. He lost six members of his family and three friends in the fire. Among the dead were his wife and two children, his sister and her two children, his best friend, his wife and child.

The tragedy left many devastated as a family outing turned into a disaster.

Among the dead were Captain M S Bhinder -- who won two show jumping gold medals at the National Games last week -- his wife and four-year-old son. Captain Bhinder was second-in-command of the 61st cavalry and secretary of the Polo Club.

The Uphaar cinema tragedy has amplified the concern of fire brigade authorities that 50 per cent of fires occur due to faulty short circuits and wirings.

Fire sources said there were 398 deaths in 1,500 incidents in the capital during 1996-97. Half of the fires were due to electrical faults and substandard equipment. Property worth Rs 500 million were destroyed in Delhi.

Other reasons for fires were improper use of basements in a majority of buildings besides improper installation of diesel generation sets and careless handling of inflamable objects.



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