India police file charges over temple fireworks disaster

Kollam / AFP

Indian police said on Monday they have filed initial charges against six people over a massive explosion during a banned fireworks display that killed more than 100 people and left many more with horrific burns.
Thousands had packed into a Hindu temple in the southern state of Kerala on Saturday night for the show when a stray firework apparently landed on a stockpile of them, triggering a huge blast that tore through concrete buildings.
Three people died of their injuries overnight, taking the death toll from the disaster to 109. Hundreds more are still being treated.
Police said they were investigating who was responsible for the fireworks display going ahead even though authorities in Kerala’s Kollam district had refused permission for it.
“A case was registered yesterday against six people,” said the head of Kerala police crime branch S Ananathakrishnan.
“Six people have been named in the case—three from the temple committee, three who were contractors for the fireworks display.”
Initial charges against the six include culpable homicide not amounting to murder, he said.
None of the six has yet been arrested. Police said one was in hospital and the other five had gone missing.
Police also said they were questioning five temple workers involved in staging the fireworks display. They faced no charges at this stage.
Witnesses told how the force of the explosion sent concrete slabs and roof tiles slamming into the panicked crowd of onlookers in the early hours of Sunday.
Thousands had gone to the temple to celebrate the Keralan festival of Vishu, marking the Hindu new year.
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.
‘Memories will haunt us’
One man living near the temple told how his son Adiraj, a factory worker, had gone to the display with three old friends. Only one survived.
“He was with his friends near the structure where the firecrackers were kept,” said Baba, 46, giving only one name.
“He had dressed up for the festival after having dinner and said he will be with his friends. We saw his body afterwards at the hospital morgue… his memory will haunt us every year on this day.”
Firefighters and police battled to douse the fire that broke out after the explosion and to rescue those trapped at the complex, but some victims were charred beyond recognition.
More than 30 have yet to be identified and a team of specialist doctors was deployed from New Delhi to treat the horrific burn injuries.
Some buildings at the temple complex were completely flattened by the force of the blast, while others had their roof tiles blown off or plaster ripped from the walls.
The main temple building had its windows blown out. Dozens of shoes lay scattered on the dusty ground outside.
Fires and stampedes are not uncommon at temples and during religious occasions, often because of poor security arrangements and lax safety standards.
The Kerala government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the disaster, which comes as the southern state heads to the polls.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the scene of the disaster on Sunday and messages of condolence have poured in from around the world.
Pope Francis’s office said he was “praying for all affected by this tragedy” while Britain’s Prince William and wife Kate said through a spokesman they were “saddened by the news” after arriving in India on Sunday for an official tour.

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