A massive fire sparked by fireworks swept through a temple in India’s southern Kerala state on Sunday, killing at least 100 people and injuring more than 200, police say.
Thousands of devotees gathered into the Puttingal Devi temple in the coastal district of Kollam for a fireworks display to mark the start of the local Hindu New Year.
The fireworks display began at midnight and went on for hours. The explosion took place about 03:30 (22:15 GMT Saturday), when one of the crackers fell onto a shed where the fireworks were stored, said residents near the temple site, about 70 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
A building at the temple then collapsed, causing many of the deaths. More than 200 people were injured.
Many of the dead were charred beyond recognition and would have to be identified by DNA tests, Kerala police chief TP Senkumar said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kollam with a team of doctors to help state authorities deal with the large number of injured people, moving swiftly to pre-empt criticism over lack of public safety.
“The fire at the temple in Kollam is heart-rending and shocking beyond words,” he said in a Twitter post. “My thoughts are with families of the deceased and prayers with the injured.”
Modi has faced public criticism in the past for failing to respond quickly to disasters such as the floods in Chennai late last year. Large parts of the metropolis were under water for days before government help arrived.
Television images showed people, some clutching children with burn injuries, being taken to hospitals.
The federal government also ordered the military to help the Kerala state authorities with two navy ships sailing to Kollam with medical supplies.
Officials said permits for the display had been refused after safety fears. With Kerala in the midst of an election for a new state assembly, the fire quickly turned into a political issue as local leaders demanded an investigation into the fireworks display.
In Kerala, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party trails its rivals the Congress party and the communists. The BJP has focused on building up grassroots strength in the state for decades.
Kerala’s Chief Minister Chandy said the Kollam district administration had denied the temple authorities permission to carry out the fireworks display, and that the government will investigate how they went ahead.
“There was no permission to even store the fireworks,” he said.
Police has registered a case against the temple authorities for negligence. The temple trust was not immediately available for comment.
Kerala is studded with temples, managed by rich and powerful trusts that often ignore local regulations. Each year temples carry out fireworks displays, often competing to stage the most spectacular ones. There are judges who decide the winners.
Kollam district magistrate A. Shainamol said people living in the neighbourhood of the temple had complained about the danger of these fireworks in the past.
The Puttingal temple is one of the oldest in the state. It was built on the site of an ant hill where locals believe a goddess appeared centuries ago.