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Youth sets old woman on fire at West Mambalam

By Karthik Subramanian

CHENNAI, JAN. 17. An unidentified youth attacked a 68-year-old widow, doused her with fuel and set her on fire, in her apartment at West Mambalam in the early hours on Saturday.

S. Saraswathi suffered 80 per cent burns and was struggling for her life in the Apollo Hospitals.

The motive for the attack was not clear but police ruled out burglary because diamond earrings and gold necklace were still on her person, when neighbours rescued her from the burning apartment at 3.30 a.m.

Police took fingerprints and brought sniffer dogs to pick up scent. As neighbours carried Saraswathi out of the apartment, she mumbled that "a slim youth in his early 20s" set fire to her as she was sleeping in an easy chair. She said she kept telling the assailant that she wanted to see her children and asked him why he was setting her on fire. She lost consciousness soon after.

Reconstructing the attack, police surmised that the assailant had entered the ground floor apartment of Ponni Flats on Balakrishna Street Extension by breaking the window grills.

Cries raise a panic

Around 3-30 a.m., Saraswathi's neighbours woke up as she cried, "Save me. Save me." Thick smoke billowed out of the windows.

Three residents from the first and second floor apartments, P. Ramanarayanan, Janaki Raman and Govardhan, rushed to help her. Through the main door, they saw the whole apartment on fire.

Saraswathi too was on fire. The bed, chairs and electric wires were ablaze.

Mr. Ramanarayanan tried to grab Saraswathi, but received an electric shock. Quickly, the others switched off the electric mains.

Fifteen minutes later, other residents rushed out and shouted for help.

However, no one responded. Fearing that the fire would spread to the entire building, the residents rushed to bring buckets of water, Mr. Ramnarayanan said.

Only one phone worked, in the first floor house of Mr. Govardhan, who kept dialling for an ambulance and a fire engine.

By 3.55 a.m., Mr. Ramanarayanan managed to put out the flames and drag Saraswathi out.

They poured water on her and draped her in a cotton saree. Saraswathi muttered the telephone number of her relative in Kodambakkam.

The ambulance arrived at the apartment at 4 a.m. and rushed her to the Apollo Hospitals.

Other residents flung buckets of water into the burning apartment. The Fire Service never showed up. "The person who took our call at the Fire Service said fire tenders could not be rushed for small fires," a resident recalled angrily.

The residents later said they found electric wires wrapped in cellophane tape connected to the mains in a room.

They suspect that the assailant could have tried to electrocute Saraswathi but the police dismissed the theory. "The wires were burnt in the fire. She could not have survived an electrocution attempt," Ashok Nagar Police Inspector, S. Rajendiran, said.

Residents described Saraswathi as a cordial and active woman.

Her son and daughter were living abroad and she was living alone in the apartment. Neighbours said Saraswathi, who had moved in six months ago, frequently changed her servants and fired a maid recently. The owner of the apartment said Saraswathi had enrolled in a computer class in Pondy Bazaar.

The Police Commissioner, R. Natraj and the Joint Commissioner - South - J.K. Tripathy, inspected the apartment in the morning.

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