One-hundred-six people died and 383 were injured in a major blaze, the worst ever in the history of Kerala, at Puttingal Devi temple in the coastal town of Paravur in Kollam district of Kerala early on Sunday. Adisplay of fireworks, for which no permission had been granted by the authorities, triggered the fire and a massive explosion. Way back in 1952, a fire mishap at Sabarimala shrine had claimed 68 lives.
As many as 60 bodies had been identified till evening. Government machinery went into an overdrive to carry out autopsies and hand over the bodies to the families of the victims. DNA tests will be conducted on bodies that were charred beyond recognition, said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
The CM announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to kin of each of those killed, Rs 2 lakh for seriously injured and Rs 50,000 for those with minor injuries. With model code of conduct in force in Kerala, which votes on May 16, the government took permission of the Election Commission to announce ex-gratia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who termed the incident “heart-rending” and “shocking”, also announced Rs 2 lakh each as compensation for the next of the kin of the dead and Rs 50,000 each for the injured. He flew to the scene of tragedy to personally take stock of the situation and meet the injured. “I told the CM that if the injured need to be shifted to Delhi, Mumbai, the Centre will help them.” Within hours, the army, air force and the navy joined in rescue operations and to provide medical treatment.
Ships sailed from Kochi while helicopters flew in from Tamil Nadu as well. Personnel from National Disaster Response Force also joined the rescue. The blaze occurred around 3.30 am during the fireworks contest (matsara kambam) organised as part of the annual ‘meenabharani’ festival of the 100-year-old temple. Every year, trophies would be given to the winners, said sources. The temple, 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram, is popular for fireworks shows.
OVER IN NO TIME
Police sources said sparks from the pyrotechnics spread to a storehouse (kambapura) adjoining the temple, where a large cache of explosives were stored. This resulted in a massive blast, the impact of which, locals said, was felt over 1km radius of the temple. Nearly 15,000 people were enjoying the illegal show that turned into a tragedy in no time. Bodies were ripped apart by the intensity of the blast. Many of the victims were charred beyond recognition.
The concrete structure of the temple’s Devaswom board office collapsed burying several people beneath it, the police said. Many were injured after being hit by flying concrete chunks. Nearly 500 houses in the vicinity of the temple were damaged.
Eyewitness said that thousands of people had left the event venue shortly before the blaze otherwise the toll would have been high. Following the blaze the power supply and communication networks were cut hampering rescue operations.
Kollam district collector A Shainamol and city commissioner of police P Prakash confirmed that no approval was given to hold the fireworks show. Despite denial of permission by the collector, the temple authorities went ahead with the celebration with the help of local politicians, said sources. Crackers worth Rs 8 lakh were used for the show, they added. CM Chandy has ordered a detailed probe by the crime branch into the tragedy.
“The temple defied orders not to allow competitive fireworks, which is a custom during the annual festival of Goddess Kali. This is alarming and unprecedented,” said Chandy.
TEMPLE OFFICE-BEARERS BOOKED
Hours after the tragedy, the police registered a case under section 304 (culpable homicide) of IPC against the temple office-bearers for holding the fireworks contest without permission.
Surendran, one of the two contractors for the fireworks show, is battling for life, while the other, Krishnakutty, died in the blast. The blaze also claimed the lives of one policeman deployed at the contest site. Meanwhile, politics took a backseat across the state, with all parties cancelling electioneering for Sunday. Congress vicepresident Rahul Gandhi also visited the scene of tragedy in the evening.MORE