At least 110 people died and more than 350 were injured when an unauthorised fireworks display at a century-old temple in Kerala set off blasts and a blaze early on Sunday, underscoring recurring safety breaches at places of worship in India.
The tragedy at the popular Puttingal Devi temple in Kollam district’s Paravur, 70km south of state capital Thiruvananthpauram, occurred around 3.10am when more than 10,000 people had gathered in and around the shrine complex.
The temple organises a fireworks competition in which two religious groups contest in front of thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honouring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of Kali.
But the district administration denied clearing the temple authorities’ request to conduct this year’s show, which also marks Hindu New Year celebrations in mid-April.
“No permission for any kind of fireworks was given,” district collector A Shainamol told PTI.
Residents said the catastrophe happened when a live cracker fell on a storeroom inside the shrine complex filled with high-intensity fireworks — an illegal stash worth Rs 10 lakh. The explosion was so strong that some parts of the temple roof caved in and caused maximum casualties while shockwaves were felt 2km away.
Charred bodies, dismembered limbs, and blood-stained clothes were strewn around the temple complex in a densely-populated neighbourhood after the incident.
“We are investigating how the orders were flouted and who was responsible for the decision to go ahead with the fireworks display,” said chief minister Oommen Chandy, who cancelled his campaign for the May 16 assembly polls and rushed to the spot. He announced an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh to families of the dead.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kollam with a team of doctors to help state authorities cope with treating the mass of injured people. “My thoughts are with families of the deceased and prayers with the injured,” he tweeted.
Spoke to Kerala CM Sh.Chandy regarding the Kollam accident who apprised me of the situation.Assured him of all possible help from the Centre— Rajnath Singh (@BJPRajnathSingh) April 10, 2016
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, whose party is seeking to retain power in the state, visited the temple site. BJP chief Amit Shah cancelled his public functions in Kerala and rushed to the Trivandrum medical college, where many of the critically injured were shifted.
Top officials of the temple have reportedly gone into hiding after police registered a case of culpable homicide against them.
An IANS report said a case has been registered against the inured father-son duo of Surendran and Umesh, who had organised the show. Both are treated at Trivandrum medical college.
Residents said concrete pieces went flying and one such projectile reportedly hit a two-wheeler driver a km away.
Police, disaster management teams and the air force carried out the rescue that was hampered in the absence of proper roads and a blast-triggered outage. The navy too joined the effort in the coastal town. Many of the injured were airlifted to hospitals.
Like everyone else, an elderly woman from the locality blamed the authorities for the tragedy. She said her son had filed a complaint over fireworks stored inside the temple complex but no one paid heed. “This was an avoidable tragedy.”
The Kerala high court too had issued directives on fireworks safety at temples to prevent accidents. The rules were broken with impunity, police officer Loknath Behera said.
Fires and stampedes are not uncommon at temples and during religious occasions in India, often because of poor security arrangements and lax safety standards.
(With inputs from agencies)