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Tuesday, August 07, 2001

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25 die in T.N. asylum fire

By P. S. Suresh Kumar

RAMANATHAPURAM, AUG. 6. Twentyfive mentally ill persons, including 11 women, were killed and five suffered burns in a devastating fire which swept across a private home for mentally- ill at Erwadi, a tiny pilgrim centre 27 km. from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, early on Monday.

The fire began around 5.10 a.m. and, as the home was thatched with coconut palm fronds, the entire shed was gutted in 10 minutes, before fire tenders reached the spot.

Eyewitnesses said the fire broke out in the northern part of the shed and spread like wildfire in a short span of time. All that remained at the site were charred bodies fettered in chains and pieces of flesh, making it impossible to identify those killed.

On seeing the flames, villagers as well as pilgrims rushed to the spot and saw smoke billowing out of the shed. The entire area was steeped in darkness and they could not hear anything but the inmates' groans.

As all the inmates of the asylum were kept in fetters (the so- called ``divine chains'' put round the feet of the mentally-ill), they could not come out of the shed, said Najira Beham of Thirunakeswaram near Kumbakonam, who had a miraculous escape as she was able to remove the chains on her feet.

Of the 43 mentally-ill persons on the premises, 25 were killed, four reported missing and nine had a miraculous escape when the fire broke out. The five who suffered burns have been admitted to the Government Hospital, Keelakarai. Four of them have been identified as: Renuka, Maniammai, Shanthi and Noorjahan, while the identity of the other person could not be established.

Erwadi and the neighbouring villages are known for these private homes sheltering the mentally-ill.

Police arrested the owner of the asylum, Muhaideen Badsha, his wife Suriya Begam, and relatives Rashak and Mumtaj Begum. Though the cause of the fire was not known immediately, witnesses said it could have been due to the falling of a chimney-lamp in the shed. As there were gusty winds, the fire spread in moments. Police are also looking into the possibility of sabotage, according to Mr. Sanjeev Kumar, Deputy Inspector- General of Police, Ramanathapuram Range.

Steps have also been taken to inform the relatives of the deceased and if they do not turn up by Tuesday noon, the district administration will make arrangements to dispose of the bodies at Erwadi that evening, said Mr. S. Vijaya Kumar, District Collector.

The names of the 25 killed are: Vijalekshmi of Ramanathapuram, Nasra of Thuckalay in K.K.district, Lekshmi of Madurai, Selvi of Salem, Santhamani of Coimbatore, Rasheea of Chennai, Pattugani of Tuticorin, Sarojini of Coimbatore, Anusuya of Chennai, Gulnas of Karnataka, Vellaichamy of Virudunagar, Krishnan of Periyakulam, Sonai Muthu of Thirumayam, Babu of Villupuram, Santhankrishnan of Erode, Muruganatham of Uthamapalayam, Parthiban of Salem, Arumugham of Seerkali, Lekshmi of Coimbatore, Periyasamy of Tuticorin, Murugaraj, Samsudeen and Rajan of Coimbatore, Radhakrishnan and Thankaraj.

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