Lee Towers counted himself lucky to make it to 1995 after smoke and flames swept through a crowded hotel ballroom where he was celebrating New Year's Eve.

"All the lights went out and there was suddenly an enormous amount of smoke," he said. "I was jammed in, I could hardly move and I thought, `It's all over."'Five people died and about 140 were injured in the fire, which began an hour before midnight Saturday amid the holiday de-cor-a-tions in the hallway of the Switel Hotel and quickly swept into the ballroom.

"From the entrance, among the Christmas trees, there suddenly was this great ball of fire that went through the room like a whirlwind," said Antwerp Police Chief Hugo Van den Broeke, who was among the 450 well-dressed guests.

Officials said they would not comment on the cause of the blaze until Monday. Witnesses reported hearing an explosion among a balloon display immediately before the fire broke out and smoke filled the room.

Guests, some on fire, could not see the emergency exits and trampled over one another in their panic to get out.

"The people who were unable to get out immediately were breathing the hot air, and they suffered lung burns," said state Gov. Camille Paulus. Twenty to 25 were in critical condition Sunday night.

Towers, a famous Dutch singer, was one of many foreign guests at the party, most from neighboring Germany and the Netherlands. He escaped unharmed.

"People were being crushed, then I fell," Anita Pauwels told Associated Press Television. "My husband took me outside. There were severely injured people burning. It was terrible. There were dead bodies in the street."

Bandleader Dirk Van Hove said revelers were slow to react at first. "People thought it was part of the show that was going on, or to do with a flambe being served," he told APTV.

Three people died in the ballroom, one en route to a hospital and the fifth a short time later at an Antwerp hospital. Officials fear the death toll could rise.

Authorities in this port city, 40 miles north of Brussels, were investigating to see whether the hotel's safety standards were adequate.