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Heater said to blame for Iran mosque fire
Updated: 2005-02-15 22:05

TEHRAN, Iran - A mosque fire that killed 59 people and injured another 350 was blamed on a kerosene heater that was placed too close to a thick curtain that separated male and female worshippers, an Iranian news agency reported Tuesday.

A survivor of Monday's fire said some of the deaths were caused by a stampede of panicked people trying to escape the flames racing through the Arg Mosque, which was more crowded than usual because of a Muslim holiday.

Some worshippers, many of them women, were injured when they jumped from second- floor windows, the witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Women pray on the second floor, separated from the men.

Police Chief Brig. Gen. Morteza Talaie said "basic safety rules" were ignored, including the installation of the kerosene heater too close to the curtain, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

IRNA also carried a different account of the cause, however, quoting unidentified witnesses as saying a woman's veil caught fire from the heater and spread to the curtain. Heaters were being used because of unusually cold winter weather in Tehran.

An initial report Monday blamed a faulty electrical outlet, but IRNA reported that theory had been discarded. It also said arson or a bomb was ruled out.

Workers at the mosque Tuesday cleared away debris, repainted blackened walls and replaced windows.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mohammad Khatami sent their condolences to the families of the victims, IRNA reported.

Hospital records checked by The Associated Press showed that 40 of those killed and most of the injured were women.

Outside one hospital, a 38-year-old man, wailing and beating his chest, was searching for his wife and two young daughters. He had been at work at the time of the fire.

"I am desperate. I can't find them anywhere on any list, of any hospital," said Mansour, whose last name was drowned out by his screams. "I wish I died instead of them. I had a lot of hope for them. But now all of them are burned."

Residents also lined up to donate blood for the victims.

The mosque, which can hold 600 people, was more crowded than usual as worshippers were marking Muharram, which commemorates the 7th century death of Hussein, grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad.

Firefighters extinguished the fire an hour after it started, state television said.

But Reza Pourbaradaran, who lives nearby, complained that firefighters arrived too late.

"Firefighters arrived one hour after the fire broke and when serious damage had been done," he said.

The mosque is close to the historic Golestan Palace where Reza Khan was crowned as Reza Shah Pahlavi in the 1920s and the huge Tehran bazaar, the heart of business in the capital.

Fires involving kerosene heaters are not uncommon in Iran. Earlier Monday, a heater exploded in a Tehran kindergarten. No one was injured as the school was closed because of the freezing temperatures.

Last month, 13 elementary school students died in a fire that started after a malfunctioning heater ignited a barrel of kerosene. Eighteen other students were injured in the fire at the school in Safilan village, some 435 miles south of Tehran.

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