Around 3.30 am on Sunday, there was a massive explosion followed by tremors which were felt even a kilometre away from the 100-year-old Puttingal Devi temple in Kollam as a massive fire tragedy struck there.
This was the account of Girija who said such an incident had never occurred earlier.
Giving an account of her experience, Girija, whose house is situated about a kilometre away from the temple, said she felt tremors soon after a massive explosion.
The mishap due to the display of fireworks occurred on the last day of the seven-day ‘Meena Bharani’ festivities.
Thousands of people had gathered at the temple precincts to witness the fireworks display underway since midnight when the blaze erupted around 3.30 am.
The mishap occurred as sparks of the fireworks fell on the store room ‘Kambapura’ and the fire crackers kept there exploded with a deafening noise.
Lalu, a television journalist who was watching the fireworks from the terrace of a nearby building, said the mishap occurred towards the end of the festivities.
“I saw a huge fireball and then a thundering sound. Electricity in the area went off and I heard people screaming. It was a very chilling experience,” he said.
Lalu said he immediately rushed to the spot and found about 10-15 people dead.
Charred bodies and human remains were strewn around the temple complex after the fire tragedy.
Raju, a local resident staying near the temple, said he heard a massive sound and a huge ball of fire.
He immediately rushed to the spot and found bodies strewn all over, as also blood stained clothes and footwear, he said.
The concrete building in which crackers and pyrotechnic materials were stocked was completely destroyed in the explosion which was so massive that cement slabs were found even 10 metres away from the accident spot, said 63-year-old Vijayan, an eyewitness.
A building of the temple office was also completely gutted, he said.
He said he saw bodies burnt beyond recognition, slippers of the dead and injured and concrete slabs strewn near the temple precincts.
“The injured and the dead were soon removed to various hospitals. But since the mishap occurred at such odd hours, there was initially some difficulty in finding vehicles to ferry them to hospitals,” he said.
Suresh Babu, a casual labourer claimed he and his friend were the first to reach the accident spot and immediately started removing the dead bodies and helping the injured.
“I have never seen such a ghastly scene... burnt bodies, broken limbs, disfigured bodies. I have yet to get over the shock and have not been able to take food or water. The sight of dead bodies is still haunting me”, he said.
The tiled roofs of at least five buildings were blown away.
Vijayan said a large number of people died when concrete chunks and iron grills from the structures fell on those who had gathered to watch the festivities. Many had suffered head injuries.
Red Cross officials at the spot said most of the injuries were due to concrete chunks and iron rods falling on the victims, they said.
Another injured man said he was watching the festivities with his friend, who was killed in the mishap.
The impact of the explosion was such that concrete chunks were found strewn even 500 metres away from the mishap spot.
An eyewitness Balaji said one of two youngsters sitting on a motorbike died on the spot and another was seriously injured when a portion of a concrete slab fell on them.
Several buildings, including a medical shop, suffered extensive damage, he said.
Panjakshiamma, 73, who had filed a complaint before the District Collector against permitting the temple authorities from conducting the fireworks display, said her house had suffered massive damage in the explosion.
“Our house is very near the temple. Every year, there is some damage or the other and so we had filed a complaint against holding of the fireworks display.”
The woman and her daughter said their house had suffered severe damage in the impact of the explosion.
Image: People gather inside the compound of a temple after a fire broke out at a temple in Kollam in Kerala. Photograph: Sivaram V/Reuters