NEW DELHI, Dec. 24 -- Indian authorities worked into early Sunday to identify the charred bodies of dozens of Indian schoolchildren and their parents who were trapped inside a tent that burst into flames. Officials in the northern Indian town of Mandi Dabwali estimate nearly 340 people -- up to half of them children under 10 -- died Saturday when a tent used for large community gatherings was engulfed by fire. Hundreds of small children and their parents -- who had gathered to celebrate a school function -- died from burns and smoke inhalation. Others were killed in a stampede as the panic-stricken crowd rushed for the enclosure's single exit. 'The people are dismayed and despondent,' Haryana state police official Hari Shankar said early Sunday. 'There is a sense of grief all around.' Authorities worked throughout the night trying to help families in the bustling farming community identify the bodies of their loved ones. The remains were to be cremated Sunday in accordance with Hindu custom, Shankar said. Hundreds of other victims were in the hospital for treatment of burns and other injuries. Shankar said 109 people are in critical condition and the death toll is expected to rise as some succumb to their wounds. The Saturday afternoon fire is believed to have been caused by an electrical short-circuit, Shankar said. Several gas cylinders, which were lying nearby, also exploded, fueling the flames. Terrified children and their parents tried to flee, but the courtyard where the tent was set up had only a single, narrow entrance from which to escape, witnesses said.
Hundreds were still trapped inside when the flaming roof -- made of a highly flammable synthetic material -- collapsed. The children, who ranged in age from 5 to the early teens, were students at the Danayand Anglo Vadic School, a private school run by a reformist Hindu group. The school had rented the tent, which was used for weddings and other large community gatherings, for an annual end-of- the-year function. 'It seems like my entire city has died,' said Ram Singh, a local businessman. Mandi Dabwali is a prosperous farming community located 100 miles (160 km) from the Pakistani border, in the northern Indian state of Haryana. Haryana state officials have called a three-day mourning period to honor the dead, and the chief minister was scheduled to be in the town to attend the cremations, officials said. Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao has called on the state government to provide immediate relief to the families. After the fire, shops closed and people from the town rushed to the site to help the wounded. Victims were rushed by private cars to hospitals in the surrounding area and those with serious burns had to be taken as far as the city of Chandigarh, more than 165 miles (270 km) away. Officials have called for an investigation into the tragedy.