The toll from stampede at Uppupara near Sabarimala crossed 100 with more bodies being recovered from the accident spot near Vandiperiyar in the wee hours of Saturday.
About 40 bodies have been identified and the victims are mostly from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. People from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala including a few children are also among the dead. About 100 people had been injured and they are under treatment at health centres and hospitals at Vandiperiyar, Kumily, Kottayam and other places in Kerala and Theni in Tamil Nadu. Relief and rescue operations were continuing early in the morning.
The tragedy had occurred around 9 pm last night while the pilgrims were returning after witnessing the ‘Makarajyothi’ from the grassland area (Pulmedu) which is about 12 km from Sabarimala. The accident spot lies nearly 26 km off Vandiperiyar town on the Kottayam-Kumily road and the last few kilometres are connected by a dirt road inside the forest.
The remoteness 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 heavy traffic following the conclusion of the Makara vilakku celebrations.
An eye witness, Kumar from Dharmapuri told our staff reporter at Vandiperiyar that the stampede had started after a jeep apparently lost control and ran into the crowd past 8 pm. He and his team of 40 persons from Tamil Nadu could escape. There are also reports that the jeep had hit an autorikshaw.
Control rooms are functioning at Kumily and Vandiperiyar to coordinate relief activities and provide information on victims. The telephone numbers are 04869 222049, 252244 and 253456. Arrangements have been made at the Kumily hospitals for postmortem of the bodies. The government would make arrangements for transport of the bodies to the native place of victims, official sources aid.
Over 70 bodies have been brought to the government hospital at nearby Kumali town as police and fire force worked overnight with local rescuers at the hilly terrain where the mishap happened last evening.
According to top police sources, 102 people were confirmed dead and seven of the injured were stated to be in serious condition.
The tragedy struck the pilgrims returning after darshan at the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa on the ‘makara samkarma pooja’, when a jeep went out of control and ploughed into devotees in a narrow forest stretch at Pullumedu, triggering the stampede.
A high-level inquiry into the mishap will be ordered, government sources said.
Several ministers and senior officials are camping at the accident site and at Kumali town.
The place where the tragedy took place is in a very remote area where there are no lights.
It is quite far from Sabrimala. What we understand is that some vehicle overturned in the darkness or moved forward in the crowd. Therefore, some people fell down and an auto also collapsed on top of them which started the stampede,” Kerala DGP Jacob Punnoose said.
“We have recovered all the bodies. There is heavy mist in the area. My hunch is that there may not be many casualties there,” he said.
Thirty-eight bodies have been identified so far, of which 18 are from Tamil Nadu, 12 from Karnataka and two each from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
Relatives of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, who have not returned home, have arrived here to look for them, he said, adding that photographs and particulars of the dead will be made available to the relatives to help them locate their dear ones.
Speaking about the injured, Punnoose said the number of injured is quite few because they were evacuated first and were admitted to a hospital in Tamil Nadu. Some others have also received minor injuries.
Aneesh, one of the early rescuers to reach the spot, said the mishap was caused by the jeep which ran into the crowd and turned turtle.
While some people who got trapped under the jeep died, it also set off a wave of panic, triggering a stampede as thousands of pilgrims had converged at Pulmedu area, used mostly by devotees from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh for returning home after darshan, he said.
“I have never seen such a huge crowd at Pulmedu in my life. The flow of pilgrims returning was much more than anybody’s expectations”, Aneesh, who hails from the area, said.
Kerala Deveswom Minister Kadannapally Ramachandran said the rush of pilgrims was much higher than expected.
“Though arrangements for controlling the crowd were on a usual scale, the flow of people had been much more than all expectations”, the minister said from Vandiperiyar.
The two-month long pilgrimage which began in mid-November was, by and large, incident-free till last night.
Over 30 million devotees had visited the shrine during the season. Ten years ago, a stampede at Pampa on way to the hill shrine killed 50 people on the occasion of Makar Jyoti.
Defence Minister A K Antony has offered Kerala government all help from defence forces for rescue operations.
A special team of the National Disaster Response Force is at the spot.