Over 55 people were killed at Pulmedu near Vandiperiyar in Kerala’s Idukki district on Friday night, the climactic day of the Sabarimala pilgrimage season, in a series of tragic incidents. The bizarre sequence apparently began after at least one accident involving a bus or a jeep, and led to a panic reaction verging on a stampede among pilgrims in the forested and hilly area. About 90 people were believed to have been injured. Some early accounts spoke of a much higher death toll.

The tragedy occurred between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. The pilgrims were returning after witnessing the “Makarajyothi”. It was believed that a number of them are from Tamil Nadu.

The weeks-long Makaravilakku season was particularly crowded this time and major traffic hold-ups had been reported over the past few days.

Initial reports reaching the State capital suggested that a vehicle carrying pilgrims rammed another and overturned.

This reportedly triggered a stampede. Health Minister P.K. Sreemathy told The Hindu that ambulances and doctors from five nearby districts have been rushed to the Vandiperiyar government hospital. Medical College Hospitals in the State were put on alert, she said.

District authorities have opened a control room in Kumily. The telephone numbers are 04869-222049, 252244.

Our Kottayam Correspondent adds:

Idukki district authorities said most of the victims were from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. According to them the death toll may go up.

While authorities had taken all security measures in major centres like Sannidhanam, Pamba and other areas, Uppupara and Pulmedu areas, nearly 35 km from the Sannidhanam, had remained unsecured.

These areas had witnessed unprecedented arrival of pilgrims during the past few days and thousands had set up temporary camps to witness the Makarajyoti. With the absence of power and other infrastructure, the commotion that followed the accident snowballed into one of the worst stampedes in the history of the State.

The accident site lies about 25 km from Vandiperiyar town on the Kottayam-Kumily road and the last few kilometers are connected by a dirt road inside the forest. Though the accident had occurred around 8.15 p.m., the first information trickled in only by 10 p.m.

The remoteness of the mishap site hampered rescue operations and it took more than three hours to take the victims to the nearby hospitals as the vehicles carrying them were caught in the traffic jam on account of the heavy outflow following the conclusion of the Makara Vilakku celebrations.

When three of the seriously injured pilgrims arrived at the Kottayam Government Medical college Hospital, it was past 2.15 a.m. on Saturday. A few others have been moved to the Government Medical College in Theni, Tamil Nadu.

PTI adds:

“Fifty five bodies have so far been recovered from the site”, which is a remote area on the border with Tamil Nadu, Kerala Education Minister M.A. Baby said.

Pathanamthitta district Superintendent of Police Sanjay Kumar said up to 100 people were killed. At least 100 people were also injured, many of them seriously, in the incident.

Mr. Baby said most of the people died in the stampede which broke out after the accident at 8.15 p.m. “We are not in a position to specify at this stage how many were killed by the jeep and how many perished in the stampede,” Mr. Baby added.

The Minister said the jeep went out of control and crashed into the crowd of pilgrims, resulting in a stampede.

Video footages of the accident site in a heavily forested hilly terrain in the Periyar Tiger Reserve on the Western Ghats showed panic-stricken people shifting the dead and the injured.

Mr. Baby said most of the pilgrims involved in the tragedy were from Tamil Nadu and other States who were returning to their homes to celebrate Pongal after having a darshan of the deity at the hill shrine.

There were also a few Malayalees among the dead, he said adding Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan has directed the Idukki district administration to provide speedy relief to the injured.

Fifty five bodies were taken to Vandiperiyar Hospital in Idukki district while some of the injured were rushed to the Kottayam Medical College (Kerala) and the Theni Medical College in Tamil Nadu, officials said.

Sabarimala Special Commissioner Rajendra Nair said a jeep had ploughed through the pilgrims, who were returning from "Makara samkrama pooja", using a narrow trekking path at a place about 7 km from the Sabarimala shrine.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony has offered to the Kerala government all the help from defence forces for rescue operations. A special team of the National Disaster Response Force has left for the spot.