A fast-moving fire broke out at the back door of a windowless discotheque yesterday, sending 200 screaming, panicked people crowding through the only other exit. Five people died.

Arson was suspected, officials said. A five-gallon gas can was found behind the building.

Firefighters arrived to find a huge crowd outside the Odyssey Lounge, officials said. Those who escaped tried to wrestle fire hoses from firefighters in hopes of rescuing trapped friends, hampering efforts to extinguish the blaze, Bayou Blue Fire Chief Eugene Cadiere said.

Screams could be heard inside the burning building, a one-story structure with aluminum siding and two doors. The building, which also housed a pool hall, was a popular nightspot in the oil-rig country about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans.

"We heard people screaming and we saw flames coming out of the roof and out the back door," said Michael Pye, who was playing pool when the fire began.

"Everybody panicked and started running toward the front door. People started knocking down each other," he said.

The fire began at about 3 a.m. and flames spread quickly throughout the building, witnesses said. The victims, three women and two men, apparently were trapped by the fire, firemen said.

A sixth person suffered critical burns and smoke inhalation, according to Laurie Ennis, nursing supervisor at Terrebone General Hospital.