NEW DELHI (AFP/REUTERS) – A major explosion and fire swept through a temple in southern India on Sunday, killing more than 100 people after thousands of families and others had gathered for a fireworks display.
"It has been confirmed that 102 people were killed and 280 injured and admitted to various hospitals," Chief Minister of Kerala state Oommen Chandytold reporters.
More than 300 others were injured in the fire that engulfed the Hindu temple complex in Kerala state, where crowds had gathered during the night for a festival that boasted the fireworks show.
A team of specialist doctors was being deployed from New Delhi to the disaster site amid reports of horrific burns suffered by those caught in the blaze at the Puttingal Devi temple.
The navy and air force were also sending helicopters to evacuate the most critically injured, federal Health Minister J.P Nadda said.
The fire is said to have occurred at about 3.30am on Sunday after an explosion at a storeroom on the temple's premises that was housing large amounts of firecrackers for the festivities, according to the Press Trust of India.
The festival is concluded with the setting off of fireworks at around 1am local time, The Times of India reported. Large crowds had come together at the temple at 3am to watch the fireworks display.
Mr Chennithala has ordered an investigation into the tragedy, reported the BBC. "The temple holds an annual firework display every year. We're doing our best to rescue those still trapped," the BBC quoted Mr Chennithala as saying.
The minister said firefighters and police worked during the night at the temple in Kollam district to douse the fire and take the injured to hospital. "Now the situation is under control... the police are on the spot," he said.
Television footage showed a series of large explosions and fireworks erupting as plumes of smoke filled the night air after about 3am local time. The injured were also seen arriving at nearby hospitals in cars and in ambulances in chaotic scenes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed shock at the disaster, and said he was dispatching his health minister and he too would also fly to Kerala soon to "take stock of the situation".
"Fire at temple in Kollam is heart-rending & shocking beyond words. My thoughts are with families of the deceased & prayers with the injured," Mr Modi tweeted. "Arranging for immediate shifting of those critically injured via helicopter."
Mr Modi also flew to Kollam with a team of doctors to help the state authorities cope with the large number of injured people, moving swiftly to pre-empt criticism over lack of public safety.
He announced 200,000 rupees in compensation for the families of those killed and 50,000 rupees for those injured.
Mr Chandy said the temple officials had gone ahead with the fireworks display despite being denied permission because of safety concerns.
"That is correct. District collector of Kollam denied sanction for this fireworks (display)," he said when asked after whether permission had been given.
“I had denied permission for this fireworks because they had asked permission for conducting it on a competition basis,” Kollam district collector A. Shainomal told the NDTV network.
The Kerala government ordered an inquiry into the cause of the disaster and Mr Chandy’s spokesman told AFP that police have registered a criminal case against temple authorities.
Local lawmaker N.K. Premachandran said it occurred during a fireworks competition between two groups at the temple where thousands had gathered to watch.
One firework landed on a building that was storing the rest of the pyrotechnic material, triggering the explosion, he said. “It has happened after 75 per cent of the fireworks were (already) burst,” Mr Premachandran, state MP for Kollam, told NDTV.
The chief doctor at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College in the state capital said some of those pouring into the hospital had suffered serious injuries “and many would require amputation” of limbs. “Many have sustained burns of over 50 percent and the condition of some of them is quite serious,” Dr D. Mohandas told the Hindu newspaper.
The Kerala government ordered an inquiry into the cause of the fire, as a senior police officer said it is suspected to have started when sparks flew onto the fireworks lined up ready for the show.
"During the time of the fireworks, it is believe that a spark flew onto the panel where the pyrotechnics were being kept and then it all exploded," assistant commissioner of police for Kollam district K. Laljy told AFP.
The Press Trust Of India said, however, that the fire erupted after firecrackers kept in a storeroom on the temple's complex ignited.
Residents described hearing a huge explosion that shattered the windows of their homes some 100m away, before racing to look for survivors in the rubble.
“This morning when we came, there were body parts on the floor...on the roof there was a hand, an arm,” local Anita Prakash told the CNN-IBN network, adding that she had raised safety concerns about previous firework displays.
A team of specialist doctors and medicines were being deployed from New Delhi to help with the disaster, amid reports of horrific burns suffered by those caught in the blaze at the Puttingal Devi temple.
Video footage showed a series of large explosions and fireworks erupting as plumes of smoke filled the night air. Concrete rubble and other debris were strewn at the complex in Kollam district, while police examined large unexploded bundles of fireworks.
Local residents were photographed carrying the bloodied and injured in their arms from the site. Others were quoted saying bodies had been burnt beyond recognition, and concrete slabs had hit the crowd after the explosion.
The navy and air force were also sending helicopters to evacuate the most critically injured, officials said.
Navy spokesman D.K Sharma said the helicopters would transport the injured to Thiruvananthapuram and also to the city of Kochi where the navy operates a hospital, with some of the injured currently being treated at smaller medical centres.
Fires and stampedes are common at temples and during religious occasions, often because of poor security arrangements and lax safety standards.
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.
Kollam district magistrate A. Shainamol said people living in the neighbourhood of the temple had complained about the danger of these fireworks in the past.
The explosion from the fireworks was so strong that some parts of the temple roof caved in.
Local media showed bulldozers trying to clear the area of the debris.
The Puttingal temple is one of the oldest in the state. It was built on the site of an ant hill where locals believe a goddess appeared centuries ago.
The fire comes as Kerala – governed by the Congress party, which is in opposition at national level – heads to the polls in one of five state elections being held in India this month and next.