NEW DELHI (AFP) - A powerful explosion triggered by a gas cylinder tore through a packed restaurant in India on Saturday killing at least 85 people and wounding approximately 100 others, police said, in one of the worst such accidents in the country in recent memory.
The restaurant building in central Madhya Pradesh state was being used to illegally store explosives which detonated in the blast, local authorities said, vastly amplifying its impact and destroying neighbouring buildings.
“Initially we heard the sound of (fire) crackers... a huge explosion took place forcing people to run for cover,” Balram, an injured labourer, told Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency from the hospital in Jhabua district.
The blast in the town of Petlawad occurred at around 8.30am local time as many office workers and schoolchildren were having breakfast in the restaurant.
Photographs from the scene showed corpses covered in dust and ash lying in the streets alongside the twisted wreckage of burned-out vehicles, as victims described seeing body parts strewn in the street.
“We have seen them flying and falling on the ground,” Narsingh, one of the injured told PTI.
Residents reported hearing a small blast followed by a much larger explosion, an AFP photographer at the scene said.
Television footage showed scores of people and rescue workers using their bare hands to shift mangled heaps of steel and concrete of the ruined buildings while police cordoned off the area.
Police revised the number of people who died down to 85 after earlier reporting a higher toll, after clearing the debris of the destroyed restaurant and neighbouring structures.
“Earlier we thought it was 104 (people who died) based on various reports coming to us but now our own official information says 85 confirmed deaths,” M. L. Gond, an inspector in charge of Jhabua’s police control room, told AFP.
A local magistrate gave the same toll when contacted by AFP.
“Total bodies identified and confirmed dead are 85 now,” Ashok Jadhav, the local sub-divisional magistrate, said.
“As for the site, it has been cleared and no more bodies are there,” he said, adding that around 100 others were being treated for their injuries in various nearby hospitals.
EXPLOSIVES STORED ILLEGALLY
Authorities suspect the intensity of the explosion may have been compounded by detonators and gelatin sticks, an explosive material used in mining, being stored in the restaurant building.
“Initial reports suggest that detonators and explosives... used for digging wells and for mining were stored in the room next to the restaurant, which made the explosion so big,” Gond said.
He added that the explosive material was being stored illegally in the residential area.
Another district police official, Anurag Mishra, cited the restaurant’s proximity to a busy bus stand as a reason for the high number of casualties.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan took to Twitter to express his sadness at the loss of life.
“The Jhabua tragedy is heart wrenching. I offer my condolences to the families of the victims and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured,” Chouhan said.
He offered compensation of 200,000 rupees (S$4,200) to the families of the dead and 50,000 rupees to help the injured victims.
Chouhan has also ordered an inquiry into the matter.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed suit and conveyed his condolences on the micro-blogging site.
“Extremely pained at the loss of lives due to the cylinder blast in Jhabua,” Modi said.
Domestic gas cylinder explosions are common in India, where safety standards are relatively poor.
But although reports of fatal accidents from cylinder blasts are frequent, mass casualties are unusual.