A fire raged through a crowded mosque in Tehran (search) during evening prayers Monday after a female worshipper's veil caught the flames of a kerosene heater, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 250, Iran's official news agency reported.
Panicked people raced for the doors and smashed windows to escape the blaze, leaving burned shoes and women's black chadors scattered in the mosque yard. The mosque walls were charred, carpets were burned and religious books, including the Quran, were destroyed.
Women, who pray on the second floor of the mosque, separated from the men, had to race down stairs and through a narrow doorway to exit. Many stumbled and were trampled in the frenzied stampede to escape.
Hospital records checked by The Associated Press showed that 40 of those killed and the majority 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."
Tehran Police Chief Brig. Gen. Morteza Talaie was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying 59 people were confirmed killed. More than 250 people were injured in the fire, according to rescue workers.
The fire started when the veil of a female worshipper caught the flames of a kerosene heater on the upper floor of the mosque and the flames spread to a thick green cloth that covered the ceiling and walls of the mosque in commemoration of the holy month, according to IRNA.
Earlier reports had blamed a faulty electrical outlet, but IRNA reported that theory had been discarded. It also said officials had discounted the possibility of a bomb or arson attack.
"The main cause of the fatal incident is ignoring the basic safety rules, including installation of a kerosene heater very close to a thick curtain," Talaie was quoted as saying.
"Pieces of burning cloth fell on the head of the worshippers, who stopped praying and smashed windows to run out of the mosque in panic," a witness said on condition of anonymity.
The wounded were taken to six hospitals in the capital and police were guarding the doors to limit the entrance of relatives desperate for news of their loved ones.
"My brother has been seriously injured. What a calamity," said 48-year-old Masoumeh Ebrahimi, wiping her tears with a corner of her chador, a head-to-toe covering.
Residents lined up to donate blood for the victims.
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.
Workers were seen late in the evening cleaning the debris and wiping away the black smoke marks from the entrance.
The tragedy came on the fourth day of the month of Muharram, a period of mourning for Shiites, when they recall the 7th century death of Hussein, grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad.
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 during the winter. 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.