Hours later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Kollam district to express grief over the horrific tragedy. Officials said he was accompanied by 15 medical professionals.
The tragedy occurred at about 3.30 a.m. in the coastal town of Peravur when a spark from an exploding firecracker landed on a building where a vast quantity of crackers had been stored, setting off explosions and a massive blaze that brought down the structure, witnesses said.
Thousands were watching the fireworks spectacle, which began overnight, at that hour. The temple, dedicated to Puttingal Devi, normally opens at 5 a.m.
Lallu S. Pillai, a journalist who was on the terrace of a nearby house, told IANS that it took only a few minutes for the disaster to unfold.
‘Only half hour was left for the fireworks display to get over when a spark from an exploding cracker landed on a concrete building where high potency crackers had been stored,’ Pillai said.
Within minutes, the building came crashing down ‘and we felt the place shake’, said Pillai. ‘After that it was absolute chaos. Pieces of concrete were scattered all over the place.’
Several houses in a half kilometre radius were damaged.
So deadly was the tragedy that most people got barely any time to escape from the exploding crackers and leaping flames. Many fell over one another as they tried to flee, the witnesses said.
Within hours, the army, air force and the navy joined in rescue operations and to provide medical treatment. Ships sailed from Kochi while helicopters flew in from Tamil Nadu as well.
Just after noon, police took into custody five employees of a father-son contractor duo who were reportedly responsible for the fireworks show that had been denied permission by the Kollam district authorities.
The father had suffered major burns while the son was in hospital with 50 percent burn injuries.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced a judicial probe and an investigation by the Crime Branch of Kerala Police into the tragedy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the accident as "heart-rending and shocking beyond words". He toured the temple and met the injured in a hospital in Kollam district.
At the Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 km away, principal Thomas Mathew said about 45 people had been admitted, mostly with broken bones in their hands and legs.
Eleven people were brought dead and two died after reaching the hospital, said Mathew. The injured were also warded in several other hospitals.
The tragedy triggered sorrow across the nation.
After speaking to Chandy, Modi said earlier that he would reach Kerala ‘soon to take stock of the situation arising due to the unfortunate fire tragedy’.
Modi announced Rs.2 lakh each as compensation to the next of the kin of the dead and Rs.50,000 each to the injured.
Chandy announced after an emergency cabinet meeting in Kollam that families of each of the dead would get Rs.10 lakh, each of the seriously injured Rs.2 lakh and those with minor injuries Rs.50,000 each.
The chief minister admitted that permission for the fireworks display had been denied but yet took place. But he said it would be difficult to put a blanket ban on such fireworks show.
He said all the expenses of the injured would be borne by the government.
‘This incident should open the eyes of all of us and all should cooperate with the guidelines to be worked out,’ he said.
After the fire was brought under control, heavy equipment was used to clear the debris. This is when all three wings of the armed forces joined the operations.
Governor P. Sathasivam said ‘such tragic incidents are a grim reminder of the urgent need to adhere to safety measures during festivals’.
All political parties on Sunday cancelled their election meetings as a mark of respect for the dead.