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Kerala temple tragedy: How all orders went up in smoke

The Indian Express found, was a long list of violations committed by the Puttingal temple authorities that ultimately led to at least 110 deaths and left over 380 people injured.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Kollam |
Updated: April 12, 2016 10:32:10 am
Vijayan age 72. Claims he never missed this festival and is regular visitor every year. Left with head n eye injury.. Daughter sabitha seen along with him. photo by Nirmal Harindran. Vijayan age 72. Claims he never missed this festival and is regular visitor every year. Left with head and eye injury. Daughter Sabitha seen along with him. photo by Nirmal Harindran.

IT started with an announcement over loudspeakers at 11 am Saturday, confirming that the fireworks display would be held that night at the Puttingal temple in Kollam despite a ban.

Then, as the firecrackers started lighting up the night sky, the announcers urged the organisers to move faster and come up with a “stronger display”. In between, they thanked local politicians, including from the CPI and Congress, for making the event happen. And then, an eyewitness recalled, there was a “huge fire and explosion”.

On Monday, what was left amid the debris, The Indian Express found, was a long list of violations committed by the Puttingal temple authorities that ultimately led to at least 110 deaths and left over 380 people injured. Witnesses also pointed fingers at local police who “were clearing a safe path for the workers to bring the firecrackers and explosive material to the spot”, instead of enforcing the official ban on the event.

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On February 23, 2016, the secretary of the Paravur Puttingal Devaswom managing committee, J Krishnankutty Pillai, submitted an application seeking permission for a fireworks event on April 9, to be organised by a Thiruvananthapuram-based team under Ms Anarkali.

A preliminary inquiry by the Additional District Magistrate, carried out by the local village officer, found that the event was a fireworks competition between two parties. It noted that the temple administration did not get a No Objection Certificate from the 11 houses located within 60 metres of the venue. The families were against competitive fireworks and the noise. The village officer recommended that the event may be allowed only if the use of explosive material is controlled and measures are taken to control the crowd.

Reports from the assistant divisional fire officer and environment engineer said conditional permission may be granted keeping in mind safety and pollution issues.

Watch: Video Of Temple Fire In Kollam, Kerala (Click here)

Another report from the SP to the ADM found that the temple administration was organising a fireworks competition. It noted that the administration had signed an agreement for fireworks with a second team team, too, under Umesh Kumar from Thiruvananthapuram. It said the temple administration did not include the second agreement in its application. It said the quantity of explosive material would be more than 12 kg if a second team was involved, which is against the undertaking in the application. The SP recommended denial of permission.

A report from the sub-inspector at Paravur police station, 300 metres from the temple, suggested that the administration need to find another suitable location, without any residences nearby, next year.

On April 1, 80-year-old Pankajakshi Amma, who lives next to the temple, wrote to district collector A Shainamol complaining that the distance between her house and the venue was less that 25 metres, and that her house would be damaged after the event every year. Demanding action, she said she is a cardiac patient and stays away from her home during the event.

PHOTOS: Kerala temple fire, over 100 dead

The village officer conducted a second inquiry and informed the collector that excessive use of explosive material damaged electronic equipment and houses in the vicinity and caused health problems for children, senior citizens, pregnant women and cardiac patients.

The ADM’s final order on April 8 concluded it is impossible to allow the competitive event. It said that in the coming years, permission may be granted if temple authorities ensure safety and security of property and people. Denying permission, the ADM’s order said those who violate the order will be prosecuted under Explosives Rules, 2008.

Police confirmed that at least 12 temple officials were absconding while a case has been registered against six people under sections 307 (attempt to murder), and 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) of IPC and under section 4 of the Explosive Substances Act. The state government has also ordered a crime branch probe into the event.

But that was of little consolation to those affected such as G Pramod, a house painter who is undergoing treatment at the Kollam district hospital after suffering injuries, including a fractured shoulder, after being hit by a concrete slab.

Recalled Pramod: “I watched workers bring out the ‘amittu’ (firecracker), which explodes like a bomb. The announcers were urging them to hurry up as it was 3.15 am on Sunday. Then, one of the two teams exploded a ‘Suryakanthi’, which takes the shape of a sunflower. The announcers egged the other team to come up with a stronger display. The workers then started bringing out the ‘amittu’ from the godown in their hands, and not wrapped in cloth as they usually do. They were looking for a good spot when sparks from the display fell down. There was a huge fire and explosion. As I fell down, I could see huge concrete slabs flying in the air.”

Pramod said he regained consciousness “after about 20 minutes” and was taken to hospital by rescuers in a mini van. “Four people, including myself, were in the van. On the way, I realised that the other three were dead, one with his skull split open and another with his internal organs visible in a pool of blood,” he said.

Local officials said the impact was such that among the dead was a youth from Paravur town, almost 1 km away from the spot, who was hit by a huge concrete slab from the venue.

“At 11 am Saturday, the announcer said that the temple management would organise the event that night, despite a ban. He thanked the state government and said the event would be more powerful than last year,” said Sunil Kumar, an LIC agent and a local BJP functionary from Paravur.

“At around 8pm, they again started making announcements, cheering up the huge crowd at the temple compound,” he said.

Kumar and other eyewitnesses confirmed that the announcers thanked N Peethambara Kurup, a powerful Congress leader from the area and a former Kollam MP; Sooranad Rajasekharan, the Congress candidate for Paravur in the assembly election; sitting MLA G S Jayalal (CPI); and former Congress MLA and Kerala Devaswom Board chief Prayar Gopalakrishnan.

“The temple committee usually spends more than Rs 10 lakh for explosive materials and gifts. The winning team gets a Gold Cup and a rolling trophy besides cash awards from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000,” said V Muraleedharan, an RSS leader from Kollam.

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