7 staff at Indian temple detained over fire that killed 109 people

Story highlights

  • 7 temple authorities have been arrested, and five employees of a fireworks company have been detained
  • 109 died after fireworks cache exploded during unauthorized fireworks display in Kollam, India
  • "People were running everywhere, and burnt bodies were on the ground," a witness says

(CNN)The web of suspicion from India's deadly temple fire is growing wider, with seven temple officials now under arrest, Kerala state police said.

Another five people -- employees of a fireworks company -- have been detained for questioning in connection with the fireworks disaster, said Kerala police Assistant Commissioner Rex Bobby Aravin.
    A stray skyrocket ignited a stockpile of other fireworks at the Puttingal temple in Kollam, killing 109 people, officials said.
    The detained men included the temple's president, secretary, and treasurer of the temple authority, local police official Aanantha Krishnan said. Those men were being questioned.
    The temple, 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.
    The inferno destroyed a temple office building and a storage shed while also damaging nearby houses. The temple's main shrine was not severely damaged.

    'Huge fireball'

    Bhadran, a reveler, said that the accident happened quickly, making it difficult to register what had happened.
    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 worshipers believe lived inside an anthill.