About 100 people died and hundreds of others were injured in a massive fire that broke out at a temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala early Sunday where thousands had gathered to witness a fireworks display being held as a part of an annual religious festival.
The tragedy took place around 3 a.m. – a few hours after the fireworks display started near the Puttingal Devi Temple in the coastal town of Paravur in Kollam district, about 70 kilometers from the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.
Officials said a shed where a huge quantity of fireworks was stored went up in flames after a spark fell on it, setting off a series of massive explosions and a blaze that spread quickly.
The office of the temple authorities was reduced to rubble and part of the temple roof also caved in. Huge plumes of smoke billowed into the night sky.
A stampede ensued as panic spread and many were injured as they tried to flee the flames.
Disaster teams have reached the coastal town. The armed forces are assisting the massive effort to transport the injured and those who have suffered burn injuries to hospitals.
Naval spokesman D.K. Sharma told VOA that helicopters and three naval ships have been dispatched to take the injured to bigger towns in the state.
"The helicopters will be used to establish the air bridge between Kollam and Trivandurum, and once the casualties reach Trivandrum, (colonial name for Thiruvananthapuram), they will be airlifted to Cochin. The ships have already reached with medical equipment, medical assistance, doctors, the specialists," Sharma told VOA.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said permission had not been granted for the fireworks display and temple authorities had flouted rules in conducting it.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi headed to the disaster site with a team of specialist doctors.
In a tweet Modi called the fire at the temple “heart-rending and shocking beyond words” and said “My thoughts are with families of the deceased and prayers with the injured."
Focus on injured
After surveying the scene of the disaster, Chandy said the focus is on treating those who are injured and have suffered burns.
“About 300 persons are admitted to different hospitals. Sufficient medical facilities are available here and we are giving the best medical care to all the persons,” he told reporters.
WATCH: Related video of fire at Indian temple
Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the central government will assist the state government in rescue operations.
“As soon as we came to know about the fire, the teams have been alerted,” Singh said.
An investigation has been ordered into the tragic blaze. The fireworks display at the temple is a tradition that dates back many decades and is usually a competition between two teams.
Pyrotechnic shows are usually banned at temples in the Kollam district and rules stipulate that fireworks should be stored more than 100 meters away from temples.
The southern Kerala state is dotted with many Hindu temples, and the Puttingal Devi temple was built at a site where locals believe a goddess appeared many centuries ago.