The office clock at the Puttingal temple in Kollam’s Paravur remained stuck at 3.10am, a grim reminder of the exact time a huge fire that killed 110 people broke out on its premises early on Sunday .
Burnt clothes, slippers and body parts lay strewn across the place.
A lone stray dog could be seen struggling to make a meal of a half-burnt human body slumped against a wall.
Until reports last came in, authorities had identified as many as 48 of the deceased people.
Residents said the incident occurred when a live cracker fell onto a godown filled with high-intensity fireworks. The explosives, worth Rs 10 lakh, were meant for a fireworks competition between two religious groups to celebrate the start of the local Hindu New Year.
Video: Fire at Kerala temple
Jayakumar K, a travel agent, said it was by pure luck that he survived the incident. “I was sitting on a chair outside the temple to watch the fireworks when there was a sudden commotion. A fireball engulfed the entire area right before my eyes. A concrete slab came flying my way, and hit the person sitting next to me. He died on the spot,” he said.
Lallu S Pillai, a journalist covering the temple festival for Asianet News, was standing on the terrace of a nearby house when the fire broke out. “Only half hour was left for the fireworks display to get over when a spark from an exploding cracker landed on a concrete building, where high potency crackers had been stored,” Pillai told IANS.
“In a few minutes, the building came crashing down and we felt the place shake.”
He described the scene as one of “absolute chaos”, with chunks of concrete raining down on people in a radius of 500 metres. Even as distraught relatives bemoaned the loss of their loved ones, RSS activists wearing trademark khaki shorts could be seen helping volunteers in their rescue efforts.
An elderly NRI woman staying in the locality squarely blamed the authorities for the tragedy. Stating that her son had earlier filed a complaint over fireworks stored at the temple posing a danger to their dwellings, she said, “All our please fell on deaf ears. This was an avoidable tragedy.”
Even as condolences poured in from all sides, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kollam with a team of doctors to help state authorities cope with treating the large number of injured people. “The fire at the temple in Kollam is heart-rending and shocking beyond words,” he said in a Twitter post. “My thoughts are with families of the deceased and prayers with the injured.”
With the assembly elections looming over Kerala, the temple fire quickly turned into a political controversy. Chief minister Oommen Chandy sought to absolve his government of blame by stating that the Kollam district administration had denied the temple authorities permission to conduct the fireworks display. The probe will be conducted in the incident, he said, adding that “there was no permission to even store the fireworks”.
Police have registered a case of negligence against temple officials, who absconded soon after the incident.
Thiruvananthapuram Medical College principal Thomas Mathew said as many as 100 injured people were being treated at the institution. “Forty-five have been admitted, and most suffer from fractured hands and legs. While 11 people were brought dead, two more succumbed after reaching here,” he said.
At least 10 hospitals are dealing with the emergency.
(With agency inputs)