At least 36 people were charred to death and 73 injured in a devastating fire that swept through a fireworks factory complex at Mudhalipatti near the country's fireworks hub in Sivakasi.
The toll might go up with 45 of the injured stated to be in a serious condition at various hospitals.
The fire that broke out when workers were mixing chemicals to make fancy fire crackers was so intense that the factory and 48 sheds in the complex exploded in flames, trapping many in the inferno, police and fire brigade officials said.
Virudhunagar District Revenue Officer R Raju told reporters late WEdnesday night that 36 people were killed and 73 injured, while sources in police and various hospitals in Sivakasi, Virudhunagar, Sattur and Madurai where the victims were rushed put the toll above 50.
The licence of the factory was suspended only two days ago, sources said, adding the entire production had been stored in a godown against official norms. The foreman of the unit had been arrested in connection with the mishap.
Explosions could be heard across more than two square km in the sleepy village as thick plumes of smoke engulfed the area with bodies burnt beyond recognition and scores of injured lay all round presenting a sight of a battle zone.
Almost all those killed were workers, with some persons who rushed inside the Omshakthi factory complex to try and rescue those trapped inside also falling victim to the blaze, police and fire brigade officials said.
All the victims suffered more than 80% burns.
Fire fighters handicapped by lack of proper equipment, including masks, to tackle such major fires had to battle for four hours to douse the raging flames after struggling to enter the complex with thick smoke hampering their efforts.
Victims screamed for help and many of the injured were carried on motorbikes, cots and on the shoulders of rescuers to hospitals, according to eyewitnesses.
Officials said most workers were amateur and some trained in West Bengal were not fluent in Tamil to warn the people.
The Sivakasi cracker factory fire killed at least 40 people. UNI
Cracker units at Sivakasi, accounting for 90% of firecracker production in the country, function at 'breakneck speed' ahead of the Diwali festival, Virudhunagar district SP Najmul Hoda said.
A factory official said 300 persons were at work at the unit at the time of the incident.
Ministers Panneerselvam and others were gheraoed by the relatives of the victims when they visited the injured at the hospital in Sivakasi.
They were protesting lack of adequate facilities and medicines at the hospital.
In another development, foreman of the cracker unit was arrested in connection with the mishap, police said.
Rohit Sharma, an Official of the Controller of Explosives, visited the fire mishap site.
He said the accident could have occurred due to friction while mixing the chemicals.
Another official said a sensitive chemical which should be kept in the store room was stocked in the workshed leading to the fire.
The ill-fated unit was not supposed to accommodate 300 workers and this could be another reason for the high toll, he said.
PM announces ex-gratia of Rs. 2 lakh
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Wednesday expressed deep shock over the Sivakasi firecracker tragedy in Tamil Nadu and condoled the deaths in the accident.
"The prime minister has expressed deep shock over the Sivakasi fireworks tragedy in which many lives were lost in Tamil Nadu this (Wednesday) morning," said a release from prime minister's office.
Manmohan Singh said he stood with the people of Tamil Nadu in the hour of grief and conveyed his "heartfelt condolences" to the members of the bereaved families.
The prime minister also announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs. two lakh to the next of kin of each of the deceased and Rs. 50,000 to those seriously injured in the fire.
Sonia Gandhi expresses grief
Congress President Sonia Gandhi has expressed grief over the death of around 36 people in the blaze that raged through a fireworks factory on the outskirts of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.
Conveying her heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families, Gandhi said "my prayers are with the injured people and I wish them speedy recovery."
(with inputs from HT, PTI, IANS)