Home >politics >policy >More than 100 killed in Kerala temple fire

Bengaluru: At least 100 people were killed and over 300 injured after a fireworks competition disallowed by local authorities in the southern part of Kerala ended in a massive explosion, fire and a possible stampede.

The explosion occurred around 3.30 in the early morning at the Puttingal temple in Kollam when sparks landed on explosive material, triggering the explosion in the temple complex where thousands of devotees had gathered to watch the fireworks. The explosion caused a power outage as fire spread to adjacent houses and commercial establishments, local police officers said.

The fire was put out by morning and the injured admitted to hospitals. Local police and the fire department were joined by medical units of the Indian Air Force and Navy to treat the injured in the coastal town located 70km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Chief minister Oommen Chandy, who cancelled all his engagements in the election-bound state, said the temple did not have permission to hold the fireworks display.

Kerala’s temple festivals often include fireworks displays that draw thousands of locals and tourists. The Puttingal temple holds a fireworks competition every year, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival.

This year, however, authorities in Kollam district denied temple officials permission to hold the fireworks competition, said A. Shainamol, district collector. “They were clearly told that no permission would be given for any kind of fireworks," Shainamol told reporters. She said permission was denied over fears that the competing sides would try to outdo each other with more and more fireworks, and because the temple gets overcrowded during the festival. Public displays of fireworks can be conducted only with permission from district officials, Shainamol said.

Most of the deaths occurred when the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed, Chandy told reporters at the temple complex. He said around 60 bodies of the victims had been identified so far.

A large number of people died when concrete chunks and iron grills from the structures fell on those who had gathered to watch the festivities, PTI reported, quoting eyewitnesses.

The sound of the explosion could be heard over a radius of 1km and the whole area plunged into darkness as the power supply went off and people ran helter-skelter, eyewitnesses said.

Television channels broadcast images of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple as fireworks illuminated the night sky. At one of the main hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram, senior physician Thomas Mathew said that judging from the nature of injuries, a stampede was also likely to have occurred at the temple.

The state government declared 10 lakh ex gratia payment for family members of the deceased and 2 lakh for those who are seriously injured. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who flew down to the site of the tragedy, described the scene as “heart-rending" and “shocking", before announcing 2 lakh as compensation for the next of the kin of the dead and 50,000 each for the injured.

Modi was accompanied by a team of doctors and burn specialists from New Delhi who will stay on to help treat the survivors, officials said. “This tragedy is very painful. The extent of the tragedy is unimaginable and dreadful," he told reporters before leaving the state.

The state government has appointed a retired judge to probe the events leading to the fire. The crime branch of state police will conduct a separate probe. “We will be investigating how the orders were flouted and who was responsible for the decision to go ahead with the firework display," Chandy said.

Post-mortems will be held as early as possible and bodies handed over to the relatives without any delay, the chief minister said. Scientific examination would be done to identify bodies which have not yet been claimed, he said.

PTI reported, quoting police officers it did not name, that a case has been registered against temple authorities and explosive licencees under section 307 (Attempt to murder), and 308 (Attempt to commit culpable homicide) of IPC and under section 4 of Explosives Substances Act.

The tragedy has political ramifications in Kerala, which goes to polls on 16 May. The ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) led by Congress party is fighting to retain power while the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) is seeking to dislodge it. The Bharatiya Janata Party has a meagre presence in the state, but is assiduously working on a third front by entering into pacts with local parties.

After the collapse of a flyover in Kolkata, in which more than 26 people died and 80 were injured, Modi had visited West Bengal—also a poll-bound state— where he said the tragedy was “God’s message" to voters to save the state from the ruling Trinamool Congress party.

However, state BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan denied Modi’s visit had anything to do with the upcoming assembly elections. All election campaigning of BJP stands suspended for now, he said.

PTI and AP contributed to the report.

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