“It came like a storm, throwing everyone to the ground.”
This was how Anish Kumar described the explosions and a blaze that killed at least 110 people at Puttingal Devi temple in Kollam district’s Paravur on Sunday.
“There were bodies all over the place and the injured were writhing in pain,” he said.
Thousands had packed overnight into the temple complex in Kerala when a stray firework landed on a stockpile, triggering a huge blast that partially demolished a concrete building.
The fireworks display, for which no permission was granted, started at midnight as part of an annual festival.
“I was horrified to see hundreds of men and women on the ground, lifeless,” said Kumar, who lost one of his friends in the disaster.
Eyewitnesses said the area plunged into darkness after the first blast, which shattered windows of homes 100 metres away.
It took almost two hours for the police and fire service to realise the magnitude of the disaster.
Jayakumar, an eyewitness, had a narrow escape.
“Before we could realise what had happened, my friend, Jayan, was lying in a pool of blood next to me. A piece of concrete slab had hit his head,” 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.
He described the scene as “absolute chaos”, with chunks of concrete raining down on people in a radius of 500 metres.
“There were body parts on the floor, and on the roof there was an arm,” Anita Prakash, a resident, said. “In the past, there’s been fireworks but not on this scale.”
Dr Rajesh Kumar said those who poured into his Kollam hospital were suffering from head injuries and burn wounds, and several needed amputations.
“Seven people had partial amputations in the blast and we had to amputate surgically. Most of those hurt had head, torso and internal injuries. A few had burn injuries,” he said.
Until reports last came in, authorities had identified as many as 48 of the deceased people.
Residents said they complained about the risk of such fireworks displays, but their concerns were not addressed.
“We were often ostracised for speaking up against the fireworks. Nobody realised that they were sitting on a powder keg,” said Pankajakhi Amma, an NRI who has a house near the temple.
(With inputs from agencies)