india temple fire.jpg
Photograph: EPA/STR

An unauthorised fireworks show at a temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala Sunday sparked a fire that killed at least 106 people and injured more than 300, officials said.

The fire broke out at about 3:30 am (2215 GMT) in the crowded precincts of the Puttingal temple in the coastal town of Peravoor where thousands had gathered to see the fireworks display marking a local festival, said A Shainamol, a Kollam senior district official.

Shainamol said the Kollam district authorities had refused permission to the organizers of the fireworks display and the temple to hold the show as it violated safety regulations.

A spark from a burning firecracker landed on a stockpile of fireworks and set them ablaze, leading to several explosions in the crowded grounds of the temple, Kerala's chief minister Oomen Chandy told reporters after visiting the site.

The concrete building where the fireworks were stored came crashing down, injuring the crowds milling around it, IANS news agency reported. The temple administration building near it was also destroyed.

"Then it was absolute chaos and pieces of concrete were scattered all over the place and some of it were found over 500 metres away in a taxi stand," said local television reporter Lallu Pillai.

Many victims were hurt in the stampede that followed the fire. Reports estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people were gathered in the temple grounds at the time, which had narrow exits.

Sixty victims had been identified so far and most of them were men, an official at the Kollam police control room said. Some of the bodies were badly charred.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew into Kollam with a team of 15 doctors specialising in trauma and burn injuries who were to assist at the overflowing hospitals.

"The doctors told me that some of the explosions were so powerful that heads were separated from the body," Modi told reporters after visiting the injured in hospital.

The federal government will provide all possible assistance to the Kerala government in dealing with the tragedy, Modi said.

Helicopters from the Indian Air Force and Navy had been deployed to airlift critically injured to Thiruvananthapuram.

The district hospital in Kollam and the main state-run hospital in state capital Thiruvananthapuram were overflowing with injured and their relatives, NDTV news channel reported.

Most of the injured had suffered burn wounds, or been hurt from flying cement and mortar or in the stampede.

Police filed charges against the temple authorities and the operators of the fireworks' displays.

By evening, the police had detained five employees of a father-son contractor duo who were reportedly responsible for the fireworks show, IANS reported.

Both the father and the son were in hospital with serious burn injuries.

Manorama News channel showed the fireworks display followed by a blazing fire, smoke and explosions. Later video showed cranes and rescue workers trying to remove rubble to search for victims.

The fire was brought under control in about four hours, police said.

Chandy has ordered an investigation. "We will find out who took the decision to go ahead with the fireworks display despite permission being refused," Chandy said.

Chandy said a separate judicial probe would look at accidents involving firecrackers and make recommendations.

Indian religious festivals are often celebrated with the bursting of firecrackers and accidents associated with this practice are not uncommon.

In Kerala, firework displays are part of most celebrations and centre around the local temple.

Often local traders who have licenses for marketing fireworks in bulk hold displays of fireworks, at times competing to make their own seem more spectacular.

Permissions and inspections from local authorities are a must for firework shows and include ceilings on the amount that can be stored, the distance at which and how it has to be stored and the sort of non-residential area in which the show can be held.

But often authorities are lax or the organisers - like in the Peravoor temple - are given special privileges because they are religious institutions.

If India had proper compliance procedures then tragedies like that at Kollam could be avoided, federal environment minister Prakash Javadekar posted on Twitter.

“How could such large, traditional fireworks in mass gatherings not be stopped? Laws are used only for extortion, not for safety,” politician Jayaprakash Narayan tweeted.

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