105 killed in India temple fire, ‘dead bodies all around’

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KOLLAM, India — The disaster came too quickly for Bhadran to understand what had just happened.

One moment, he and two friends were celebrating at a local temple festival in the southern Indian city of Kollam. Minutes later, his two friends were dead.

“I did not know what happened,” said the 62-year-old, who gave only one name. “There was a huge fireball, and it was all over in five minutes. Once I reached the ground, there were dead bodies all around.”

The blast Sunday at the Puttingal temple killed at least 105 people and injured more than 500, authorities said.

Officials said a fireworks display exploded during the temple festival. Sparks from the display ignited a magazine of fireworks, causing a larger blaze, local police official K. Laljy said.

The inferno destroyed a temple office building and a storage shed. It also damaged nearby houses in Kollam, in Kerala province.

Nirmala, 58, was sleeping in her house nearby with her daughter and granddaughter when the blast occurred early Sunday morning.

“I thought there was an earthquake and hid under the bed,” she said. “When I came out, there was no electricity. People were running everywhere, and burnt bodies were on the ground. The smell was really bad.”

Started as a celebration

The century-old Puttingal temple is named after a goddess who worshippers believed lived inside an ant hill.

Those gathered at the temple for the festival stayed late into the night. It’s not uncommon for people to pray at temples early in the morning in southern India, police commissioner P. Prakash said.

But the temple did not have permission for the fireworks celebration, police official M.S. Santosh said.

Indian Prime Narendra Modi called the fire “heart-rending and shocking beyond words.”

“My thoughts are with families of the deceased and prayers with the injured,” he said in a statement.

The Prime Minister said he plans to visit the site of the fire.

“I will be reaching Kerala soon to take stock of the situation arising due to the unfortunate fire tragedy,” he tweeted.

His office said the families of those killed will get about $3,000 in “ex-gratia relief.” Those injured in the temple fire will receive 50,000 rupees ( $751) in compensation.

Searching for loved ones

By midday Sunday, no one was at the temple. Those searching for loved ones had rushed to the local hospital, hoping to find survivors.

Relatives also plastered photos of victims at a temporary medical camp near the temple.

That’s where charred bodies are being stored, as authorities said it would be too difficult to get everyone inside a mortuary to identify all the burned bodies.