Kerala chief minister V S Achuthanandan on Saturday announced a judicial inquiry into the stampede at Pulumedu that claimed the lives of 104 Sabarimala pilgrims.
A Hindu devotee who was injured after a stampede rests inside a hospital at Kottayam in Kerala. Over 100 devotees returning from Sabarimala shrine were killed after a road accident sparked the stampede.
Achuthanandan, who flew down by helicopter to Kumali where the bodies of the victims were brought, also announced a solatium of Rs. five lakh for the families of each of the victims.
The seriously injured would be given Rs. 50,000 and those with minor injuries Rs. 25,000 each.
The government would meet the flight and road transport expenses for ferrying the bodies of victims to their home towns.
The chief minister said the government would try to avail the services of a sitting high court judge for the probe.
He also reviewed with cabinet colleagues on the spot arrangements to transport the bodies as most of the deceased were from neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Meanwhile, Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and defence minister A K Antony have cancelled their engagements in Kerala scheduled for Sunday in view of the tragedy.
Kerala declared three days of mourning as the toll in the stampede near the state's famed Sabarimala temple climbed to 104 on Saturday with more bodies being brought to hospitals. More than 60 people are injured.
Kerala home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the toll in the stampede that took place last night has climbed to 104.
"The pilgrims were coming to catch a bus when there was a stampede at Pulmedu. This resulted in the death of 104 people, while more than 40 were injured," Balakrishnan, who is in Kolkata for the CPI(M) politburo meeting, told reporters.
Out of the dead, only 54 have been identified so far and they belong to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he said.
"The inquest and post-mortem will be done today of the identified bodies," the minister said.
State DGP Jacob Punnoose said victims were mostly from the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he said. Eighteen of the dead hailed from Tamil Nadu, 12 from Karnataka and two each from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of the pilgrims.
Singh sanctioned a relief of Rs. one lakh each to the next of kin of those killed in the stampede and Rs. 50,000 to those injured from the Prime Minister's relief fund.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi also expresses her deep anguish and shock over the tragedy in Sabarimala.
Calling it a national tragedy, Union defence minister A K Antony said he had directed the defence forces to see that all the help be provided.
Most of the victims who perished were from Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. They were returning home through the forest route after the Makarajyoti darshan, considered a celestial phenomenon, at the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa.
The tragedy occurred at Pulmedu in Vandiperiyar when a jeep carrying pilgrims ploughed into a crowd and overturned, killing some on the spot and triggering the stampede, rescuers said.
Kerala chief minister V S Achuthanandan, who has called an emergency meeting in Thiruvanthapuram to discuss rescue operations, said the Prime Minister has assured the state all help.
"The Kerala Government has decided to compensate all those who lost their families. We have also set up a special team and the collector is monitoring rescue operations in Sabarimala. A probe will also be constituted to find out the cause of the incident," he said .
Kerala finance minister T M Thomas Issac said a crime branch probe would be conducted to ascertain the exact cause of the tragedy.
The government would bear the expenses for the treatment of those injured, whether they were in government or private hospitals. and that official communication this matter will sent to all private hospitals, Isaac said.
As an immediate assistance, the government had announced a relief of Rs. 5000 to the families of those killed, he said.
"We are told the gruesome accident took place around 8.00pm at Pulumedu. The entire place was full of vehicles and more than a lakh of pilgrims were returning from a hillock after seeing the celestial light that appeared on the horizon soon after 7pm," Issac said.
"Suddenly a jeep that broke down lost control and rammed into the waiting pilgrims. This created panic, leading to the stampede," said Thomas.
Issac, who is camping at Vandiperiyar, said the bodies of those killed would be taken to their respective states by the state government after post-mortem.
Punnoose said the number of injured was "quite few" because they were evacuated first and admitted to a hospital in Tamil Nadu. Some others received minor injuries.
Idukki Congress MP P T Thomas said 71 bodies have so far reached the Vandiperiyar hospital, where all the bodies are being brought after which their autopsy is being conducted at Kumily.
Said senior Congress leader E M Augusthy: "Around 43 bodies have been identified so far and a majority of the dead are from nearby states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka."
Leader of opposition Oommen Chandy also visited the Vandiperiyar hospital and called for a detailed probe into the tragedy and its cause.
Relatives of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, who have not returned home, arrived here looking for them, Punnoose said, adding photographs and particulars of the dead would be made available to help them locate their dear ones.
Aneesh, one of the early rescuers to reach the spot, said the mishap was caused by the jeep which ran into the crowd and turned turtle.
While some people who got trapped under the jeep died, it also set off a wave of panic, triggering a stampede as thousands of pilgrims had converged at Pulmedu area, used mostly by devotees from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh for returning home after darshan, he said.
"I have never seen such a huge crowd at Pulmedu in my life. The flow of pilgrims returning was much more than anybody's expectations", Aneesh, who hails from the area, said.
Kerala Deveswom Minister Kadannapally Ramachandran said the rush of pilgrims was much higher than expected.
"Though arrangements for controlling the crowd were on a usual scale, the flow of people had been much more than all expectations", the minister said from Vandiperiyar.
A special team of the National Disaster Response Force is at the spot. A helpline number - 04869222049 - has been set up to help the families of the victims.
The bodies were first brought to the Vandiperiyar government hospital and from there it was moved to the government hospital in Kumily in Idukki district, nearly 15 km from the accident site, where a team of 60 doctors busied themselves in conducting autopsies.
Several grieving devotees tried to identify their near and dear ones among the dead.
The stampede occurred around 8.00pm on Friday when the pilgrims were returning after watching the celestial Makara Jyothi light, the most important event of the pilgrimage, from a hillock some 30 km from the Sabarimala temple, when a jeep lost control and rammed into the devotees. This created panic, leading to the stampede.
The tragedy took place in Pulumedu, a forested area about 10 km from the Vandiperiyar town, and about 30 km from the Sabarimala temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa in Pathanamthitta district.
One Sri Lankan is among those killed, while 18 are from Tamil Nadu, 12 hail from Karnataka, six from Andhra Pradesh and three belong to Kerala, hospital oficial said.
The Sabarimala temple is in the state's Pathanamthitta district, situated on the Western Ghat ranges at an altitude of 914 metres above the sea level, four kilometres uphill from the river Pampa.
The sighting of the Makara Jyothi celestial flame on the horizon marks the finale of the three-month-long pilgrim season at the mountain shrine.
Pamba, the base camp to the Sabarimala temple, has been overflowing with pilgrims since the past few days.
The two-month long pilgrimage which began in mid-November was, by and large, incident-free till last night. Over 30 million devotees had visited the shrine during the season.
Ten years ago, a stampede at Pampa on way to the hill shrine killed 50 people on the occasion of Makar Jyoti.
(With PTI and IANS input)List of victims
| Where it happened
| Sabarimala: Tragedy revisited
| Factfile: Sabarimala Temple
| In pics
| A survivor’s account