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Over 100 dead as fire sweeps through Hindu temple

The fire started when a spark from a fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were being stored at the temple

The Associated Press

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India — More than 100 people were killed and nearly 400 injured when a massive fire swept through a Hindu temple in southern India during an unauthorized fireworks display early Sunday, officials said.

The fire started when a spark from the fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were being stored at the Puttingal temple complex in the Kerala state village of Paravoor, said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the state’s top elected official.

Thousands of people had been packed into the complex when a big explosion erupted at around 3 a.m., officials said. The blaze then spread quickly through the temple, trapping devotees within.

Chandy said that 102 people died and at least 380 were injured in the disaster.

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

Krishna Das, a resident of Paravoor, located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Kerala’s state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, said he had started walking away from the temple as the fireworks display was about to end when he heard a deafening explosion followed by a series of blasts.

He said he saw scores of people running away, chased by fire and chunks of concrete and plaster from the temple building. As soon as the first explosion was heard, a power outage hit the complex.

“It was complete chaos,” Das said. “People were screaming in the dark. Ambulance sirens went off, and in the darkness no one knew how to find their way out of the complex.”

He said that six ambulances had been parked outside the temple complex as a precaution. They were used to rush the injured to hospitals in the nearby cities of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram.

Local villagers and police pulled out many of the injured from under slabs of concrete.

Television channels broadcast images of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the night sky. Successive explosions from the building storing the fireworks sent huge chunks of concrete flying as far as a kilometer (half a mile), according to resident Jayashree Harikrishnan.

By around 7 a.m., firefighters had brought the blaze under control, officials said. Rescuers sifted through the wreckage in search of survivors, while backhoes cleared the debris and ambulances drove away the injured.

Thousands of anxious relatives went to the temple in search of their loved ones. Many wept and pressed police officials and rescue workers for information on their family members.

At one of the main hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram, senior physician Thomas Mathew said that judging from injuries, a stampede was also likely to have occurred at the temple.

The temple holds a competitive fireworks display every year, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

This year, however, authorities in Kollam district denied temple officials permission to hold the fireworks display, said A. Shainamol, the district’s top official.

“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.

Chandy, the state chief minister, said that he had appointed a retired judge to investigate the events leading to the fire, and that strict action would be taken against those who had ignored rules.

“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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who flew in from New Delhi on Sunday, visited the site and discussed with Chandy and other Kerala leaders measures that could be taken to help the survivors.

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.