India temple fire

Families struggle to find loved ones

Empty firecracker shells inside the Puttingal Temple compound in the Kollam district of Kerala on Sunday. Witnesses described mass panic after Sunday's explosion, which left more than 100 people dead. The blast is thought to have been sparked by a fi
Empty firecracker shells inside the Puttingal Temple compound in the Kollam district of Kerala on Sunday. Witnesses described mass panic after Sunday's explosion, which left more than 100 people dead. The blast is thought to have been sparked by a firecracker that landed on a stockpile of others during a fireworks show.PHOTO: REUTERS
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (in white) beside him, at the site of the Puttingal Temple fire.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (in white) beside him, at the site of the Puttingal Temple fire.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Police say DNA tests needed to identify some bodies burnt beyond recognition

KOLLAM • After scouring six hospitals and three morgues, Mr N.P. Anoop is no closer to finding his father who was caught in a massive blast and fire at an Indian temple that claimed more than 100 lives.

Like thousands of others on Saturday night, his father had visited the Hindu temple in southern Kerala state, renowned for its beaches and tranquil backwaters, to see the annual fireworks display.

But in the chaotic hours after the explosion ripped through the Puttingal Devi complex, the increasingly desperate 32-year-old could find no trace of his father Vishwanathan, and feared the worst.

"I don't know if he is alive or dead. All I want is to see him. We are ready for the worst but this search is painful," he said, after questioning intensive care unit staff at a medical college hospital in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

"My father had gone to the festival with his friend. We were able to find the body of his friend but have yet to get any information on my father," Mr Anoop said, before heading off to yet another hospital.

At hospitals, morgues and police stations, families are involved in a heart-rending search for loved ones feared swept up in the blast that tore apart concrete buildings.

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The firecrackers are sponsored by families who get them made - they are locally manufactured and don't follow the usual norms. Sometimes, they use gunpowder to get that extra firepower.

MR SHIVA KUMAR, a local resident.

But the task is being made more difficult by the fact that some of the more than 100 people killed are unrecognisable.

Local residents reported finding body parts strewn at the complex from the force of the explosion, while others were charred in the fire, in a tragedy that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described as "shocking beyond words".

Some 15 families flocked to Paravur police station, just 100m from the temple, to fill out missing person reports and implore officers to help.

"There are 20 unclaimed bodies at the morgues and we suspect some of (the missing) might be there. But only a DNA test will establish their identities as the bodies are beyond recognition," said officer in charge N. Vijayan.

At the hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, families moved through the corridors, some sobbing, others peeking through glass windows, as overworked doctors and nurses raced around them.

Others who found relatives now face an agonising wait as the victims undergo treatment for serious burns and other injuries.

At the temple in Kollam district, witnesses described mass panic after the explosion, thought to have been sparked by a firecracker that landed on a stockpile of others during the show.

Local resident Shiva Kumar said many families had left the display by the time the explosion occurred and the victims were mostly young men competing to set off the most explosive crackers.

"It was a sort of competition between two groups," he said.

"The firecrackers are sponsored by families who get them made - they are locally manufactured and don't follow the usual norms. Sometimes, they use gunpowder to get that extra firepower."

He described scenes of chaos after the fire broke out, with onlookers having to ferry the wounded to nearby hospitals using their own cars and motorcycles.

Mr K. Manayan, a labourer, said thousands of "jubilant people" had been enjoying the lengthy display in the early hours of Sunday.

"Everything changed in a moment after a huge thud. There was silence and people were crying for help. It was so powerful that I fell to the ground, and in no time people started running over me," he said.

"Someone pulled me towards the side and later took me to hospital."

Indian police said yesterday that they have filed initial charges, including culpable homicide not amounting to murder, against six people. None of the six has yet been arrested. Police said one was in hospital and the other five were missing.

Police are also investigating who was responsible for the fireworks display going ahead even though the authorities in Kollam had refused permission for it.

There are no reports of Singaporeans affected by the incident so far, said the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Families struggle to find loved ones'. Print Edition | Subscribe