THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters) – Indian police have detained five people after a fireworks display at a Hindu temple set off explosions and fire killing 108 people, an officer said on Monday, in one of the worst accidents at a religious festival.
Thousands of people were gathered at the temple at Kollam in the southern state of Kerala on Sunday for the pyrotechnic show to mark the start of the Hindu year when sparks ignited a cache of fireworks stored inside the temple grounds.
The district administration said it had not given permission for the fireworks display following complaints of noise and pollution.
Police officer Anantha Krishnan said the five taken into custody were employees of a fireworks manufacturer who was given the contract for running the show at the Puttingal Devi temple.
The head of the manufacturing unit was injured, one of 380 people who were in hospitals across the state with burns as well as injuries caused by flying concrete and debris.
But police had not been able to reach members of the temple management, Krishnan said.
Kerala is studded with temples managed by rich and powerful trusts that often flout local regulations. Each year temples hold fireworks displays, often competing to stage the most spectacular ones, with judges who decide the winners.
On Monday, grieving relatives of the victims were scouring the temple grounds for possessions of their loved ones among the shoes, handbags and other articles strewn in a pile of debris and a puddle, dark red with blood.
“There were so many men and women lying on the ground, lifeless,” said Anish Kumar, a resident.
The scale of the tragedy has ignited demands that fireworks shows be banned at crowded places in Kerala. The chief of the state unit of the Indian Medical Association, A. V. Jayakrishna, said he planned to file a petition before the Kerala High Court on Monday curbing the use of fireworks.
Such has been the outrage across the nation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kollam within a few hours with a team of doctors.
Opposition politicians led by Rahul Gandhi also visited the temple site, demanding a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire which took place amid a state election to choose a new assembly.
Modi has faced public criticism for failing to respond quickly to disasters such as the floods in Chennai late last year. Large parts of the city were under water for days before government help arrived.
But Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said he was focused on the task in hand.
“Ever since the Gujarat earthquake, in any disaster, the prime minister wants to be hands on,” said BJP spokesman M.J. Akbar, referring to Modi’s work in his home state when the 2001 quake hit.
“Where he keeps aloof – and rightly so – is in all these artificial, emotional, sound-bite controversies. He is consistent in his interventions and in his silences.”