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Erwadi Fire Kills 25 - 2001-08-06


Authorities in southern India say 25 people died and five others were severely injured when a fire swept through a private hostel housing mentally ill residents. At least 45 people were in the hostel when the fire began, and those who died were trapped inside because they were chained to their beds.

The fire began before dawn at a hostel in Erwadi, about 550 kilometers south of Madras, the capital of India's Tamil Nadu State. Authorities say the hostel was little more than a private house attached to a mosque and was made out of thatch material, which burned quickly once the fire began.

There are scores of similar hostels in the area serving mostly Muslim pilgrims who have traveled to Erwadi for generations believing that a bathing well in the area can cure mental illness.

Witnesses say it took two hours to put out the fire and those who died were chained to their beds. Ashok Kumar Das, the local superintendent of police, says some of the residents of the hostel were considered violent and were apparently shackled to their beds to protect other residents, as well as family members who were also staying at the hostel. "Sometimes these people are chained. And those who died were found to be in chains. Some of the people claim they had violent behavior and their relatives lived there in this hostel or lodging type of place. We are taking very stringent action and have already secured the owner and management," Das said.

Authorities say they are having difficulty interviewing survivors because many are not only in a state of shock, but also severely mentally ill.

Mental health professionals in India say many of those housed in makeshift conditions in Erwadi are suffering from severe forms of schizophrenia and have been abandoned by their families. Mental illness is a largely taboo subject in India, and traditional cures of the type available in Erwadi attribute mental illness to possession by evil spirits requiring a spiritual cleansing.

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