A flying spark from a firecracker landed on a building where a large quantity of crackers had been stored, setting off explosions and a massive blaze that caused destruction in no time, witnesses said.
The incident occurred in the coastal town of Paravur in Kollam district around 3.30 a.m. when a large crowd of devotees had assembled. The temple, dedicated to Puttingal Devi, normally opens at 5 in the morning.
Lallu S. Pillai, a journalist covering the temple festival for Asianet News TV who was on the terrace of a nearby house, told IANS it took only a few minutes for the disaster to unfold.
“Only half hour was left for the fireworks display to get over when a spark from an exploding cracker landed on a concrete building where high potency crackers had been stored,” Pillai said.
“In a few minutes, the building came crashing down and we felt the place shake,” said Pillai.
“After that it was absolute chaos. Pieces of concrete were scattered all over the place. Some were found about 500 metres away,” he added.
Several houses in a half kilometre radius were damaged.
So deadly was the tragedy that most people got barely any time to escape from the exploding crackers and leaping flames. Many fell over one another as they tried to escape, the witnesses said.
At the Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 km away, principal Thomas Mathew said about 100 people were being treated.
“Forty-five have been admitted and most have broken bones in their hands and legs. Eleven people were brought dead while two more died after reaching here,” said Mathew.
People were also warded in about a dozen other hospitals.
The tragedy triggered sorrow across the nation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took off for Kollam in Kerala. The Congress said party vice president Rahul Gandhi will also visit the site.
After speaking to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Modi said he would reach Kerala “soon to take stock of the situation arising due to the unfortunate fire tragedy”.
The prime minister announced Rs.2 lakh each as compensation to the next of the kin of the dead and Rs.50,000 each to the injured.
Chandy admitted that permission for the fireworks display had been denied but yet took place.
Kollam District Collector A. Shinemol had told the temple authorities that permission would not be given for any fireworks show. Shinemol rushed to the accident site soon after the episode.
Chandy said all the expenses of the injured would be borne by the government.
After the fire was brought under control, heavy equipment was used to clear the debris, officials said.
With elections only a month away in Kerala, CPI-M leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan blamed the government for not taking adequate safety steps.
Governor P. Sathasivam said “such tragic incidents are a grim reminder of the urgent need to adhere to safety measures during festivals”.
Chandy told IANS that an emergency cabinet meeting will be held at Kollam on Sunday to decide on how to go about with the investigation into the tragedy and related matters.
All political parties on Sunday cancelled their election meetings as a mark of respect for the dead.
“We have asked our party workers to provide help to the victims,” Marxist leader Balakrishnan said in Thiruvananthapuram.
The BJP cancelled the election programmes of its president Amit Shah, who was to campaign on Sunday at Pathanamthitta. He will visit Kerala only to meet the injured.
The Congress too axed all its election rallies.