THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (AP) – Rescue officials on Monday sifted through a Hindu temple in southern India where at least 110 people died when a fireworks display – an unauthorized pyrotechnic display that went horribly wrong – swept through a temple packed with thousands for a religious festival.
The death toll so far from the pre-dawn fire on Sunday at the Puttingal Devi temple complex in the village of Paravoor, stood at 110 people with more than 380 others hurt, said police officer, Unnikrishnan.
Scores of devotees ran in panic as the massive initial blast cut off power in the complex, while other explosions sent flames and debris raining down, a witness said. Many people were trapped.
“It was complete chaos,” said Krishna Das of Paravoor. “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.”
The fire started when a spark from the fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks stored in the temple complex, said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the top elected official in Kerala state.
Police were searching for 15 members of the temple board who fled after the accident. Police were investigating for possible charges of culpable homicide, punishable with life imprisonment, and illegally storing a cache of explosives.
Most of the 110 deaths occurred when the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed, Chandy told reporters. More than 80 bodies have been identified, officials said. TimesNow, an Indian television news channel, put the death toll at 112.
Das said ambulances carried the injured to hospitals in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Paravoor, as well as the nearby city of Kollam.
Villagers and police pulled many of the injured out from under slabs of concrete and twisted steel girders.
TV channels showed video of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the sky.
One of the explosions sent huge chunks of concrete flying as far as a kilometer (half a mile), said Jayashree Harikrishnan, another resident.
Rescuers searched the wreckage for survivors, while backhoes cleared debris and thousands of worried relatives went to the temple to search for loved ones.
The temple holds a competitive fireworks show every year, with different groups putting on displays for thousands gathered for the end 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 had 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.
Permission was denied over fears the competing sides would try to outdo each other with more and more fireworks and because the temple gets overcrowded during the festival, she said.
Anitha Prakash, said she and some other residents have been trying since 2012 to stop the fireworks display which goes on for hours. “We petitioned state authorities this year also. Some of the organizers threatened my family with harm if I continued with my campaign,” she told reporters.
Chandy, the state’s chief minister, said he had appointed a retired judge to investigate the events leading to the fire and that action would be taken against those who had ignored rules.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew in from New Delhi to visit the site and met with Chandy and other Kerala leaders on measures to help the survivors.