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Massive Fire Kills More Than 80 in South India Temple Complex

A massive fire broke out during a fireworks display at a south Indian temple celebrating a religious festival early Sunday, reportedly killing more than 80 people and injuring hundreds more.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called the fire near Kollam, about 40 miles north of the Kerala state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, “shocking beyond words.”

The fire started when a spark from a fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were being stored at the Puttingal temple complex in Paravoor village, State Home Minister Ramesh Chennitala said according to The Associated Press.

A huge explosion erupted at around 3 a.m. local time (5:30 ;.m. Saturday ET) and the fire spread to the temple complex, officials said. The blaze then spread quickly through the temple, trapping devotees within, the AP reported.

Image:
In this image made from video, debris is seen following a fire and explosion at a temple in Kollam, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, early Sunday, April 10, 2016. AP

At least 84 people were killed, a Kerala police official told the AP. A spokesman for the Home Ministry said 83 were killed and 350 were injured, the Times of India reported.

Local TV channels broadcast images of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the night sky. Successive explosions from the building storing the fireworks sent huge chunks of concrete flying as far as a half mile, according to resident Jayashree Harikrishnan.

"Huge pieces of concrete were flying through the air. Chunks landed in our yard," she said.

Modi said helicopters were dispatched to immediately airlift the critically injured. Modi said he was arriving at the scene to take stock of the situation. A team of burn specialists was also travelling to the region, and two naval ships with medical supplies were being sent to the area, the Times of India reported.

By morning, firefighters had brought the blaze under control, officials said. Rescuers were sifting through the wreckage in search of survivors, while backhoes were clearing the debris and ambulances ferried the injured to nearby hospitals.

“This is an unprecedented and alarming situation," Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told broadcaster NDTV. He said the rescue effort was over, and “the next main focus of the government is to provide best treatment to the injured."

Every year, the temple holds a competitive fireworks display, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

This year's competition was happening without permission, after the state's High Court banned competitive light shows at temples.

State Labor Minister Shibu Baby John said incident would be investigated, and the victims would be compensated.

Rajnath Singh, Minister of Home Affairs, said "all possible help" would be available to assist in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress, expressed his condolences to the victims and said he spoke to Chandy "to ensure that adequate relief, medical care and assistance is being provided to the injured at the earliest."