In one of the worst fire tragedies in the country, at least 108 people were killed and nearly 400 injured when a huge stock of fireworks exploded at a temple in Kollam district early Sunday morning.
The incident took place at the 500-year-old Devi Temple at Puttingal of Paravur municipality in Kollam, located around 70 km from the state capital, where a fireworks show is part of the annual festival. The toll is likely to go up as at least two dozen victims are critically injured.
Watch: Video Of Temple Fire In Kollam, Kerala (Click here)
The temple authorities had gone ahead with the show despite denial of permission by the district administration for the fireworks display, on safety grounds. The contractor of the fireworks, Umesh, who was among those injured, told media he was forced to conduct the show by the temple authorities and locals.
Police have registered a criminal case against Umesh and the temple trust office-bearers. The office-bearers have gone into hiding.
The massive explosion reduced the building near the temple where the fireworks were kept to rubble, causing most of the deaths. The roof of the temple itself and scores of houses in the vicinity were also badly damaged. The blast cut off power supply inside the temple complex, plunging it into darkness, as people ran around in panic.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who visited the temple site, said the Kollam district administration had denied the temple authorities permission for the fireworks show, and that the government would investigate how they went ahead. “There was no permission to even store the fireworks,” he said. “Strong measures are needed to regulate such fireworks display and everyone should cooperate.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who flew down from Delhi, met Chandy to discuss measures to help the victims. Modi was accompanied by a team of doctors and burn specialists, who will help treat the survivors. The Union Health Ministry has put together a team of 25 doctors and paramedics to help the Kollam victims, drawn from AIIMS, Safdarjung and Ram Manohar Lohia hospitals in Delhi.
Rahul Gandhi also visited the site later.
BJP chief Amit Shah, who was campaigning for the polls in Kerala, cancelled all his public functions to visit the injured brought to Thiruvananthapuram.
The fireworks show began at a ground near the Kollam temple at 11.45 pm on Saturday. As a huge crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, the organisers set off the fireworks at regular intervals.
Around 3.30 am, when almost 70 per cent of the stock had been exhausted, sparks from one of the fireworks fell on on the stockpile lying inside a building, setting off the explosion.
As per Sudheer Chellappan, who lives near the temple, “Since midnight, the display of fireworks had been going on, with short breaks. At 3.10 am, an amittu named Suryakanthi (a fireworks item that shoots up and unfurls as a sunflower) fell on its side after it was lit. At that time, a worker came out with another amittu from the building where the items were stocked. That amittu caught fire and sparks from it went into the building through the open door.”
According to him, there was a single, massive explosion, lighting up the entire fireworks stockpile. “The building too exploded, hurling blocks of concrete all around.”
Other eyewitnesses said that even before the explosion, one of those handling the fireworks had sustained burn injuries from an amittu that misfired. There was minor panic, with organisers asking crowds to give way to an ambulance. However, the eyewitnesses said, the people did not budge. The organisers too did not stop the fireworks as such accidents are known to be part of the huge show.
The temple, one of the oldest in the state, holds a competitive fireworks display every year, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honouring Goddess Bhadrakali, an incarnation of Goddess Kali.
Such fireworks displays are held across temples in Kerala, which are run by powerful trusts that often flout local regulations. There are judges who decide the winners.
Kollam district magistrate A Shainamol said the Paravur temple had been clearly denied permission for any kinds of fireworks. She said this was done over fears that competing sides would try to outdo each other, and that it could result in a tragedy in an overcrowded temple. She said people living in the neighbourhood of the temple had also complained about the danger of these fireworks.
The explosion left bodies in shreds. Many of the victims sustained more than 70 per cent burns. Injuries and fractures were also caused by the falling pieces of concrete. Such was the impact of the blast that one of the concrete pieces hit two people on a two-wheeler 1.5 km away. One of them died while the other received serious injuries.
The rescue operation went on all night, and by daybreak, most of the victims had been taken out of the rubble. The IAF, National Disaster Response Force and Navy were pressed into service to provide medical help and to transport the injured.
The Chandy government has appointed a retired judge to investigate the fire.