Smell of death still haunts Kerala temple

Paravur (Kerala), May 9 (IANS) A month after a devastating fireworks tragedy killed 110 people here, one can still smell sulphur in the air at the Puttingal Devi temple. No wonder no one here is ready to forget the April 10 disaster — or forgive those they think were responsible for the loss of innocent lives.

Twelve people remain warded at the Thiruvananthapurma Medical College which received 172 injured in the immediate aftermath of the massive fires and explosions.

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Police say 43 people have been arrested and are in judicial custody. They include 14 temple committee members as well as workers and contractors who organised the fireworks show.

“We are yet to decide the charges to be put against the arrested people,” Additional Director General of Police S. Ananthakrishnan told IANS here.

The disaster occurred when a worker involved in lighting the fireworks ran into a concrete building where a live cracker accidentally fell on a heap of stored powerful fireworks.

Within seconds, the entire lot exploded with a deafening roar, bringing down the building and scattering large chunks of concrete and steel beams in all directions like bullets.

A total of 110 people died and more than 400 were injured.

When an IANS correspondent visited the temple, some 50 people, mostly locals, were discussing the happenings of that night.

Police Sub Inspector R. Radhakrishnan said: “The smell of sulphur is still here despite the rains. The smell is strong when the sun beats down. We are providing security as the roof of the building that stores the temple valuables was blown away.”

The Kerala High Court is monitoring the Crime Branch investigation. Ananthakrishnan is set to submit his report to the court when it reopens after vacation next week.

Sarada, 74, who lives barely 50 metres from the temple, told IANS that she had been complaining to the temple management for years regarding the dangers and pollution from the annual fireworks show.

On April 8, unable to put up with the noise of the exploding fireworks, she moved to a friend’s house.

Sarada’s son Harish Kumar, 47, said the temple officials never paid heed to people’s worries regarding the powerful chemicals used in the firecrackers.

So this time some residents approached Kollam District Collector A. Shinemol.

Recalling the fateful night, Kumar said he saw a piece of fireworks land on the face of a young boy. The face started to bleed.

“I took him to a nearby house and gave him first aid. When I returned to where I was earlier, I could not believe my eyes.

“The concrete building that stored the fireworks was up in flames and all I could hear were screams of people in agony.”

Kumar carried nine bleeding people to vehicles to be rushed to hospitals.

“Some were breathing, some were not. I saw the district collector at the spot. I heard her ask the police repeatedly: ‘Who gave you the sanction to conduct these fireworks?'”

When the sun arose in the morning, Kumar saw two concrete buildings razed to rubble. “We could see two bodies under the rubble.”

Now, every day, around 7 in the evening, the temple bells ring. A few people make a beeline for the day’s final prayers.

Sukumaran, a 71-year-old retired Indian Air Force officer, says the temple is now managed by the ‘tantri’ or priest. After being closed for a while, the temple reopened on April 17.

All the wells in the locality have been cleaned. But most residents who suffered varying degrees of damage to their homes are waiting for compensation.

Thomas Mathew, principal of the Thiruvananthapurma Medical College, told IANS that doctors run weekly clinics in and around the temple and give regular counselling.

Will the temple ever again hold a fireworks show? The answer, from those gathered in the temple complex, is a big ‘no’.

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