Cult leader held over temple fire

Organizers of "cult-like superstitious activities" have been taken into custody after a fire in a bamboo temple in Zhejiang Province killed dozens of women, authorities said yesterday.

The temple fire on Sunday killed 40 women ranging from 40 to 84 years old.

The fire at the bamboo-and-straw temple in Wufeng, a village in Zhejiang Province, brought it crashing down on worshipers.

Women used the temple, built several months ago to replace a brick structure torn down by officials, to pray for children who had migrated to cities to work, according to a villager.

Family members have claimed all the 40 dead bodies in the blaze and local officials said three injured people are still receiving treatment in a local hospital.

A preliminary investigation said negligence and cult-like superstitious activities might be to blame for the accident.

A special investigation team dispatched by the State Council, China's cabinet, has arrived at the scene to probe the accident.

Chen Jianliang, one of three organizers of superstitious activities at the temple site, has been detained by local police for further investigation.

Local people said most of the worshippers in the "Putang Confession" activities organized by Chen were elderly women who believed they could easily go to Heaven after paying two to three yuan (24 to 36 US cents) every time they worshipped.

"All the bodies were packed together," recalled 67-year-old Sun Jinbao, who was the last to escape from the temple after it went up in flames.

"Many people were trying to flee the temple after the fire, but the gate was just too narrow," Sun said.

She was among the 60 people participating in the worship activities when the accident occurred at 2:15pm on Sunday.

The central government yesterday urged citizens to do more to ensure public safety, a day after the temple blaze and another fire in a shopping mall claimed more than 90 lives.

Premier Wen Jiabao convened a top-level meeting in Beijing "to study further strengthening safety work."

Participants at the meeting said that in light of recent disasters, more had to be done to prevent deaths from fires, mining accidents, traffic accidents and the like.

"All officials must pay great attention to safety work," said a statement released after the meeting.

It added that efforts should extend to every business, office and school as well as other places where people work.

When accidents do occur, their cause must be investigated, it added.

In the northeast, investigators in the city of Jilin were questioning 36 people in an attempt to find the cause of the fire that tore through the crowded mall and killed at least 53 people.

The blaze apparently started at about 11:20am in a storeroom next to a boiler room.

At least 20 people jumped from upper floors, newspapers and witnesses said.

People on the top floor screamed for help for 40 minutes, said Ji Youyou, who runs a noodle stand across the street.

"I saw two men and one woman jump out together," Ji said. "I heard loud thumps when they hit the ground."

Meanwhile, a special team of 200 local officials has been formed to offer psychological counseling to the injured and families of those who died in the fire.

Fire officials in Shanghai spent yesterday inspecting two large shopping malls in Xujiahui area to ensure a similar tragedy won't happen here.

Officials, including Vice Mayor Tang Dengjie, spent the afternoon inspecting the Huijin Department Store and No. 6 Department Store in Xuhui District.