Three hours after the fireworks show began at the Puttingal Devi temple, around 2.30 a.m. on Sunday, there was an explosion on the ground, injuring two of the operators when the first of the ‘suryakanti’ fireworks was set off.
The ‘suryakanti’ is a seven-stage rocket-type firework which explodes to create a sunflower shape of sparklers.
The show was held up for about 15 minutes as an ambulance was summoned to take the injured to the hospital. Loudspeaker announcements were made requesting the crowd to make way for the ambulance.
The show resumed around 3 a.m. But the second ‘suryakanti’ also misfired, injuring two more operators. They were also rushed to the hospital. But the injuries of the four were relatively minor compared to what was to follow.
Although the two mishaps should have served as a warning, the show continued. By 3.10 a.m. the third ‘suryakanti’ was successfully fired and the crowd cheered. At 3.20 a.m. the fourth ‘suryakanti’ was set off which also misfired and resulted in the deadly inferno. Parts of the firecracker exploded midway, fell to the ground and exploded. The sparks ignited other fireworks being brought out of the storehouse and also shot into the storehouse, resulting in the fireball as onlookers and organisers stood dumbfounded.
The storehouse, which was completely destroyed in the blast, was a concrete structure with a long open veranda, about 15 meters long, with a small room at one end. Fireworks are routinely stored in the open veranda for the annual festival displays. At the time of the incident, the veranda contained huge quantities of fireworks waiting to be set off.
Hundreds of people suffered serious burns and many others were hit by debris and chunks of the exploding concrete storehouse . By 3.30 a.m., the whole temple had become a disaster area.
As the injured lay on the ground, there was a stampede with onlookers attempting to flee the fire. The police then moved in with personnel from the Fire and Rescue Service. The rescue operation commenced by 3.50 a.m. By 7 a.m. all the injured and the dead were removed to hospitals.
The premature bulk detonation of rockets and bangers stocked for use in the final session caused the blast.
The competing firework display teams possibly used potassium chlorate, a banned explosive, to make their set of crackers louder and brighter than those of their rivals. They had possibly sourced the chemical illegally from matchstick factories, investigators said.