Police Hunt Suspects in India Temple Fire That Killed 110

The fire was ignited by an unauthorized fireworks show

Medical teams on Monday tended to hundreds of people injured in a massive fire that killed at least 110 people, while authorities searched for those responsible for illegally putting on the fireworks display that caused the weekend blaze at a Hindu temple in southern India.

Amid the burnt out wreckage of the Puttingal Devi temple complex, in the village of Paravoor, rescue officials sifted through huge piles of dust, wood and concrete for clues about how an unauthorized pyrotechnic display staged before dawn on Sunday went so horribly wrong, sparking a fire that swept through the temple as it was packed with thousands for a religious festival.

Police detained five workers for questioning about fireworks stored at the site, hoping to learn more about who owned the fireworks and who had contracted the pyrotechnical display, police constable R. Unnikrishnan Nair said. The five were later released, but Nair did not say if they were able to help authorities track down any of the 15 temple board members who fled after the accident.

As of Monday morning, the death toll from the tragedy stood at 110 people with more than 380 others hurt, including many with burn injuries and others injured when a building storing fireworks collapsed.

Villagers and police had pulled many of the injured out from under slabs of concrete and twisted steel girders. They were taken to hospitals in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Paravoor, as well as the nearby city of Kollam.

Scores of worried relatives crowded the Kollam District Hospital, searching for loved ones still missing.

"We are just trying to calm them down so that they can give us the information, with which we can help them find their missing relatives," said K. Shijil, a help-desk worker at the Kollam hospital who was also giving out emergency kits that included a towel, clothes, drinking water and cookies.

Among a throng of people crowding the help desk was Somraj, grey-haired man in his 50s who was looking for his son-in-law, Anu Lal.

"We were about to return home, when Anu said, 'let's watch for a few more minutes,'" recalled Somraj, who goes by one name as do many in southern India. "Then came this loud explosion, and everything went dark. I've been searching for him everywhere."

The fire started when a spark from a fireworks display ignited a stash of fireworks that had been stored at the complex.

Scores of devotees ran in panic as the massive initial blast cut off power in the complex. Flames trapped many devotees inside the compound. More explosions sent flames and debris raining down, with some chunks of concrete falling as far as 1 kilometer (a half-mile) away, a witness said.

"It was complete chaos," villager Krishna Das said. "People were screaming in the dark. Ambulance sirens went off, and in the darkness no one knew how to find their way out of the complex."

TV channels showed video of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the sky.

Most of the 110 deaths occurred when the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed, Chandy told reporters. Most of the bodies have been identified, officials said, though there were still at least 11 unknown victims charred beyond recognition.

Police were investigating the missing board members for possible charges of culpable homicide, punishable with life imprisonment, and illegally storing a cache of explosives.

District authorities worried about safety had denied permission to the temple this year for its annual competitive fireworks show, during which different groups put on displays at the end of a seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

"They were clearly told that no permission would be given for any kind of fireworks," said A. Shainamol, the district's top official. She said officials had worried the competing sides would try to outdo each other with more and more fireworks, and nearby residents had complained that the shows were a nuisance and a fire hazard.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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