Chennai, Sep 5 (IANS) At least 36 people were killed and more than 75 injured when a powerful explosion Wednesday tore through one of the biggest fireworks factories in Tamil Nadu, triggering a major fire, the authorities said.
So powerful was the blast that more than 40 of the 48 sheds in the fireworks unit in Sivakasi, a firecracker manufacturing hub about 480 km from Chennai, were reduced to rubbles in no time.
The disaster occurred around 12.30 p.m., catching those working there as well as others unawares, police said.
The flames quickly engulfed the entire Om Shakthi Fireworks factory because a huge amount of raw materials and firecrackers were being readied for the upcoming festival season.
Police said the fire had been brought under control but the exact number of casualties will be known only after the debris was cleared.
The death toll may go up since many of the injured, admitted in hospitals in Madurai, Sivakasi and Sattur, are in a critical condition, they said.
"Most of the dead and injured were bystanders," a witness was seen speaking on a TV channel.
Villagers ran with the the injured in their arms or in cloth sheets in the absence of stretchers.
Thirteen fire tenders battled the flames while more than 25 ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals.
The police officer said thick smoke and blasts in the factory area hindered rescue efforts.
All fire tenders and ambulances in the area were pressed into service but it took time to put out the blaze, Tamil Nadu minister K.T. Rajenthra Balaji said.
Grieving relatives of the factory workers rushed to the spot.
Police are now on the lookout for Murugesan, the owner of Om Shakthi Fireworks, and Paul Pandi, who was running the unit on a lease.
"It is the duty of the lessee to take care of safety," V. Ramamoorthy, managing director at the Jubliant Crackers, told IANS.
Another industry official told IANS that the explosives department had ordered the unit to stop production a couple of days back.
Normally, once such an order is issued, the unit is allowed to convert semi-finished products into finished products, the official added.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed deep shock over the tragedy and announced ex-gratia of Rs.2 lakh to the next of the kin of each deceased.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa also announced a solatium of Rs.2 lakh to the families of the dead, Rs.25,000 to the severely injured and Rs.10,000 to those with minor injuries.
Sivakasi is one of the oldest and biggest firecracker manufacturing hubs in India.
Crackers are produced in small rooms with space for not more than four people. The rooms have four doors so that workers can rush out during emergency.
Activists say cracker units employ inexperienced workers during Diwali season to meet the soaring demand, at times resulting in accidents.
Nearly 90 percent of the country's fireworks are made in Sivakasi along with 80 percent of the safety matches.
In the last 12 years, 237 lives have been lost due to accidents in 88 firecracker units in Sivakasi.
However the Wednesday accident is one of the biggest and deadliest, industry officials said.