The Kerala state government in India has ordered a judicial inquiry into a fireworks display (Watch the video clip) that went wrong at Puttingal temple in Paravoor near Kollam killing at least 106 people and injuring more than 350 early Sunday.
Retired justice Krishnan Nair will be in charge of the inquiry and the report will be submitted in six months.
The crime branch will investigate a pending case related to fireworks filed by locals at Paravoor police station.
ADGP Ananthakrishnan will investigate the case, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said.
Competition turns deadly
Competitive fireworks are illegal and stricter laws will be framed against such displays, he said.
As many as 273 people are being treated for injuries sustained due to burns or falling debris in hospitals in Kollam and nearby district Thiruvanathapuram. The condition of many remain critical.
Over 80 bodies have been identified so far. Another 18 bodies — three of them blown into pieces — are yet to be identified, Chandy said, adding that DNA tests will be conducted to identify them.
Most of the dead are either women or children. About 20,000 people had gathered on the temple premises to witness the main fireworks which cost $12,021 and lasted for 15 minutes.
The temple fire started when a spark from a fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were stored at a shed in Puttingal temple complex, State Home Minister Ramesh Chennitala said.
A local newspaper, however, said the blaze started when a rocket named Sunflower lost direction and came down on a group of people who were carrying fresh batch of fireworks to the temple ground. Sparks from the ensuing blast flew into the fireworks storehouse resulting in multiple explosions.
The blast happened around 3 am local time (5:30am Saturday ET) and the fire tore through the temple complex trapping many devotees. Some died in the stampede that followed while others were killed by the falling debris as the temple roof caved in.
Describing the fire tragedy as “unimaginable”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday assured Kerala government and its people all help in the hour of crisis as he visited the mishap site and a hospital to see the injured people.
He arrived in Kollam along with 15 doctors specialized in burns from three top hospitals in New Delhi.
He later held talks with Chandy and ministers at the Kollam Guest House.
Permission denied for fireworks display
A case has been registered against the Puttingal temple authorities. The temple manager P.S. Jayaraj and secretary Krishnan Kutty Pillai have been booked. However, Jayaraj and Pillai have gone missing after the incident, police sources said, adding their mobile phones remained switched off.
Initial reports indicate that the temple authorities did not have the permission to burst firecrackers on the shrine’s premises. Kollam district magistrate A. Shainamol said people living in the neighborhood of the temple had complained about the danger posed by fireworks. Recently, some local residents too filed a complaint with the district collector expressing their fears and seeking action. Following this, the authorities had imposed a ban.
City police commissioner said he was misguided by the temple authorities. They told him special permission has been granted for the fireworks display.
The fireworks, which is held on a competitive basis between groups, began at 12.30 am. Although police officials ordered the temple authorities to stop the fireworks display at 3 am, the latter ignored their words.
Police said the competitive spirit among the groups pushed the temple authorities to break the rules. The authorities even announced the competitive fireworks through notices distributed among the public despite the ban on such displays.
Pyrotechnics is banned at temples but temporary permits are usually given to conduct annual display of fireworks on the ground of them being part of a religious tradition.
The impact of the blasts that followed the fire was such that the temple office as well as smaller temples located on the premises were gutted. Most of the houses near the temple were also destroyed.
Telephone and power lines in the area were down after the incident.
Surendran, the firework display contractor who was injured in the incident along with his family, is in a critical condition, hospital sources said. His house in Kazhakuttam near Thiruvananthapuram was raided after the incident and eight sacks of highly powerful and banned explosives were seized.
Five of his associates were also taken into custody. According to police, two of them were on the temple premises during the multiple explosions.
Compensation for victims
The Kerala state government announced a compensation of Rs100,0000 ($15,026) to the family of those killed in the blast and the central government offered another Rs200,000 ($3,005). Families of those seriously injured will be given Rs200,000 ($3,005) and those who escaped with minor injuries will be granted Rs50,000 ($751).
Kerala is studded with temples, managed by rich and powerful trusts that often flout local regulations. Each year, temples carry out fireworks displays, often competing to stage the most spectacular ones. There are judges who decide the winners. Trophies and even motorcycles are given away to the winners.
The Puttingal temple witnessed the worst fireworks disaster in Kerala in the past five decades. At least 68 people were killed in a similar tragedy in Sabarimala, the hill shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa 50 years back. As many as 400 people have died so far in various fireworks accidents in Kerala.
Safety norms ignored
While people watch fireworks in Kerala temples, no norms are followed on the safe distance they have to keep themselves at. One example is the mother of fireworks, Thrissur ‘Pooram’ (festival), where it is again contest between two groups. The fireworks begin around 2.30 am and go on till daybreak. The two rival groups display their fireworks one after the other from an elevated ground outside the Shiva temple while people crowd in a large semicircle around the temple ground to get a closer view of the events.
Although the rockets and bombs, which soar into the sky and explode in multitudinous colors and patterns, are checked well before being set on fire, any mistake in fixing them below the ground can send them straight into the crowd and cause many deaths. It happened once over three decades ago. Luckily, the rocket first hit the wall of a school and rebounded averting a major tragedy. Still, nearly 15 people died in the accident.
Another case related to fireworks is at a temple located near a railway track not far from Thrissur. The fireworks display was down in a field in front of the temple and spectators sat on the railway tracks to get an elevated view of the show. Unfortunately, amid the sound of fireworks, they did not hear the whistle of the approaching train and many people were run over.