BENI SUEF, Egypt – An actor knocked over a candle on a stage filled with billowing paper, starting a blaze that killed at least 32 people, many as they struggled to escape the packed theater through the only available exit, officials said.
Health Minister Mohammed Awad Tag Eddin (search) said Tuesday he expected an investigation to examine why so many people died in the fire late Monday at the Culture Palace in Beni Suef (search), a town 60 miles south of Cairo (search).
Fire codes will also be considered in the investigation, said Mustafa Alwy, a high-ranking official in the culture ministry, which runs the theater. Egypt requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers but does not strictly enforce them.
Sixty people were injured in the fire, and 36 remained hospitalized Tuesday morning. Eighteen people were in critical condition, said security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Officials believe the fire began with the toppled candle, then spread quickly to the stage set, which was lined with paper bags to look like a cave. Audience members trampled each other trying to get out the one door, which was partially blocked by a piece of wood.
The theater had another exit but it was covered in the same paper as the set and had caught fire, so the crowd rushed for the other, said Mohammed Arafat Yassin, 27, while recovering at Beni Suef hospital.
"Everyone was trying to save themselves and they were falling all over each other," he said. "It was like being inside a barbecue grill. Everyone was burning."
The theater, a cement building, was gutted.
The 32 dead included three actors who were performing and two journalists covering the play, security officials said.
The cultural center was on the third day of a nine-day theater festival featuring plays by troupes from around Egypt.
About 150-200 people were watching a theater group from nearby Fayoum perform "Grab Your Dreams," when the fire broke out about 11:45 p.m. Monday, said the theater director. Earlier security officials had said around 1,000 people were in the audience, but the facility appeared too small to hold that many.
The troupe's director, who had designed the set, was among those killed, said theater director Samir Khalili.
The play was set in a zoo, and the stage was made to look like a cave inside one of the animal cages: The ceiling, floor and walls were covered with paper bags painted to resemble stone, and in the middle of the stage was a "mountain" also made of paper. There were candles all over the set, survivors said.
In the final scene, one of the actors was shaking another character to wake him, and the movement knocked over one candle, said Yassin, a lawyer and the director of another play in the festival.
"The room became engulfed in flames. The flames were like an ocean spreading across the theater," said another survivor, Mohammed el-Amrousi, 23, an acting student.
The fire was the deadliest in Egypt since a blaze tore through a crowded passenger train on Feb. 20, 2002, south of Cairo, killing 370 people.