Police hunt suspects in India temple fire that killed 110

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Indian policemen guard the damaged structures at the spot where a massive fire broke out during a fireworks display at the Puttingal temple complex in Paravoor village, Kollam district, southern Kerala state, India, Monday, April 11, 2016. Rescue officials on Monday sifted through a Hindu temple in southern India where at least 110 people died when a fireworks display - an unauthorized pyrotechnic display that went horribly wrong - swept through a temple packed with thousands for a religious festival. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi) Indian policemen guard the damaged structures at the spot where a massive fire broke out during a fireworks display at the Puttingal temple complex in Paravoor village, Kollam district, southern Kerala state, India, Monday, April 11, 2016. Rescue officials on Monday sifted through a Hindu temple in southern India where at least 110 people died when a fireworks display – an unauthorized pyrotechnic display that went horribly wrong – swept through a temple packed with thousands for a religious festival. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

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 burned 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 Sunday sparked 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 whether they were able to help authorities track down any of the 15 temple board members who fled after the accident.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that police were investigating six people — missing temple board members and associates of firework contractors — for possible charges of attempted murder and culpable homicide, both punishable by life imprisonment, and illegally storing a cache of explosives.

The death toll from the disaster stood at 110, with more than 380 injured, including many with burn injuries and others hurt when an adjacent building storing fireworks collapsed, police said.

Following the fire, which broke out around 3 a.m. Sunday, villagers and police pulled many of the injured out from under slabs of concrete and twisted steel girders. They were taken to hospitals in the Kerala 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 on Monday, 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 hospital who was giving out emergency kits that included a towel, clothes, drinking water and cookies.

Among a throng of people crowding the help desk was Somraj, a gray-haired man in his 50s. He was looking for his son-in-law, Anu Lal, who had been watching the fireworks show with him when the disaster occurred.

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

The fire started when a spark from the fireworks display ignited a stash of fireworks that had been stored at the temple 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 (half a 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, according to Kerala state’s chief minister, Oommen Chandy.

Most of the bodies have been identified, officials said, though there were still at least 11 unknown victims charred beyond recognition.

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 that 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.

Meanwhile, a judge filed a petition in the Kerala state High Court on Monday calling for an immediate ban on the use of high-decibel explosive fireworks in the state. The court will take up the petition on Tuesday.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs more than 1,200 temples in the state, said it was opposed to a complete ban. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the board’s president, said the displays were part of temple festival rituals, but added that they should be done with sufficient safety precautions.

Story by Associated Press