At least 110 devotees were killed and over 350 injured when an illegal fireworks show set off massive explosions and caused a huge blaze in a Hindu temple in Kerala before dawn on Sunday in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said was a “dreadful tragedy”.
Many of those warded in hospitals were in critical condition. Modi, who visited the disaster-hit Puttingal Devi temple in Peravur town here, suggested that they could be flown to Mumbai or New Delhi for treatment.
Only two of the dead were women, police sources told IANS.
“The tragedy is unimaginable and dreadful,” a sombre Modi said in Thiruvananthapuram just before taking a flight to Delhi. He announced Rs.2 lakh as compensation to families of each of the dead.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced a compensation of Rs.10 lakh to families of the dead, Rs.2 lakh each to the seriously injured and Rs.50,000 to those with minor injuries.
He also ordered a judicial probe and a simultaneous investigation by the Crime Branch of Kerala Police to determine how the fireworks show ended up raining death.
Dazed survivors said the disaster happened when stacks of explosives stored in a building a little away from the 100-year-old temple exploded, apparently after a spark from a firecracker landed on its roof.
The incident occurred just after 3 a.m. amid a dazzling and deafening fireworks display even after the local authorities had declined permission for it. The celebrations had begun the previous night.
K. Jayakumar, a travel agent, explained how the disaster struck.
“A fireball engulfed the entire area right before my eyes,” he told the media. “A concrete slab came flying my way and hit the person sitting next to me. He died on the spot.”
The impact of the explosion brought down the building where the crackers had been stored, trapping many.
Chunks of concrete flew at great speed, killing unsuspecting devotees who had gathered in thousands.
Lallu S. Pillai, a journalist who was on the terrace of a nearby house, told IANS that many died within minutes.
Once the building came crashing down, “we felt the place shake”, he said. “After that it was absolute chaos.”
Other devotees said people, frightened by the explosions, started to run, at times tripping over one another.
Several houses in a half-kilometre radius were damaged.
Prakashan, who lives near the temple, said he had been complaining for years against the fireworks display but was ignored.
Temple officials fled the spot after the tragedy. IANS tried to reach some of them on their mobile phones but they were switched off.
Police arrested five men linked to a father-and-son contractor pair who were responsible for the fireworks show.
The father himself was in a serious condition in a hospital while the son had suffered 50 percent burn injuries.
For hours after the tragedy, charred bodies and human remains lay scattered in the temple complex. Authorities then began clearing the heaps of debris.
Amid the election fever in Kerala, Chief Minister Chandy held an emergency cabinet meeting in Kollam. He said the incident “should open the eyes of all of us” vis-a-vis temple celebrations.
He said the government would bear the expenses of the injured.
Spiritual guru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi called for a ban on the use of firecrackers in temples or at least their minimum use, that too under careful supervision.
At the Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 km away, 124 people were admitted, mostly with broken bones in their hands and legs. A few had burn injuries, indicating fire was not the only cause of death.
Within hours, the army, air force and the navy joined in rescue operations and to provide medical treatment. Ships sailed from Kochi while helicopters flew in from Tamil Nadu as well.
Making a brief statement at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital, Modi said he was deeply grieved. “We stand by Kerala’s grief and we will do everything we can to bring down the misery.”
After spending about 10 minutes walking around the temple complex, Modi and Chandy drove to the Kollam district hospital where 185 of the injured are undergoing treatment.
All political parties on Sunday cancelled their election meetings as a mark of respect for the dead.