Police seek 10 in connection with fire at Indian temple that killed 109 people

Story highlights

NEW: The death toll from a fireworks disaster rises to 109

"People were running everywhere, and burnt bodies were on the ground," a witness says

Police: The temple did not have permission for the fireworks celebration

CNN  — 

At least 10 people associated with a temple that went up in flames early Sunday, killing more than 100, are on the run, authorities said.

Police are looking for the individuals in relation to the fireworks accident at the Puttingal temple in the southern Indian city of Kollam, police spokesman Anantha Krishnean told CNN.

More than 500 people were injured and 109 were killed after an errant firework ignited a stockpile of other fireworks at the temple, causing a larger blaze.

The temple, which which was celebrating the Hindu new year over Saturday night into Sunday, has a long history of using fireworks in celebrations, sometimes setting off pyrotechnics that appear low to the ground.

The temple did not have permission for the fireworks celebration, police official M.S. Santosh said.

Five workers from the company that supplied fireworks to the temple have been detained, Kollam Commissioner of Police P. Prakash told CNN.

The inferno destroyed a temple office building and a storage shed while also damaging nearby houses in Kollam, which is in Kerala state in southwest India. The temple’s main shrine was not severely damaged.

It’s not uncommon for people to pray at temples early in the morning in southern India, Prakash said. Hundreds were still at the temple at 3:15 a.m. Sunday, when the explosion occurred.

Bhadran, a reveler, said that the accident happened quickly, making it difficult to register what had happened.

‘Huge fireball’

One moment, he and two friends were celebrating. Minutes later, his friends were dead.

“I did not know what happened,” Bhadran, who gave only one name, said. “There was a huge fireball, and it was all over in five minutes. Once I reached the ground, there were dead bodies all around.”

Nirmala, 58, was sleeping in her house nearby with her daughter and granddaughter when the blast occurred.

“I thought there was an earthquake and hid under the bed,” she said. “When I came out, there was no electricity. People were running everywhere, and burnt bodies were on the ground. The smell was really bad.”

Some of those killed died from burns; others died from suffocation or from the crush of collapsed buildings.

Those injured and hospitalized will receive free treatment, said Oommen Chandy, chief minister of Kerala state.

Prayer vigils ordered

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party circulated a memo from National General Secretary Arun Singh requesting district officials to organize “maha arti” prayers Monday evening “to pay homage to the departed souls (and) pray for speedy recovery of the injured.”

It noted that both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party’s President Amit Shah had expressed their grief and offered prayers for the victims. Modi visited the Kollam District Hospital on Sunday evening, meeting injured victims and family members.

He called the fire “heart-rending and shocking beyond words.”

Modi’s office said the families of those killed will get about $3,000 in “ex-gratia relief.” Injured people will receive 50,000 rupees ($751) in compensation.

Britain’s Prince William, who embarked Sunday on a 10-day tour of India and Bhutan with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, offered condolences at a gala dinner in Mumbai that evening.

“Catherine and I would like to offer our condolences to all those affected by the terrible fire at the temple in Kollam,” he said.

“I know all of you in this room will join us in the sentiments.”

The century-old Puttingal temple is named after a goddess whom worshippers believe lived inside an ant hill.

M.R. Rakesh reported from Kollam; Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Mallika Kapur, Huizhong Wu, Sugam Pokharel, Joshua Berlinger, Omar Khan and Laura Perez Maestro contributed to this report.