At least 52 dead in fireworks plant blaze

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 01:00

AT LEAST 52 workers were burnt to death yesterday in a massive fire that swept through a fireworks factory in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state and took more than five hours to extinguish.

Officials in the small town of Sivakasi, 480km southwest of the state capital Chennai (formerly Madras) where the fire broke out in the Om Shiva Shakti fireworks company, feared the death toll could rise as about 60 others were badly burnt.

The entire factory was gutted in the fire and debris had to be cleared before a tally of the fatalities was possible, police said.

The blaze broke out around noon local time in a room packed with people working with incendiary materials and explosive chemicals and spread swiftly across its 60-room premises.

Television news channels aired pictures of flames and smoke billowing out of the factory and surrounding warehouses, enveloping them for several hours.

Burning chemicals used to make the pyrotechnic crackers hindered rescue workers as the noxious fumes made it difficult for them to breathe.

Stocks of firecrackers stored in warehouses exploded after catching fire and locals were seen carrying away the injured in make-shift stretchers.

“Bodies have been burnt beyond recognition and we are still trying to trace the family members of the victims,” said local police chief Najmul Hoda.

Sivakasi has more than 700 fireworks factories which for several weeks have been working furiously ahead of the festive season that includes Diwali, the festival of lights which tens of millions of Indians celebrate by igniting firecrackers.

Back-to-back fireworks manufacturing units that employ some 50,000 workers are packed into the centre of the town with little or no safety measures or procedures.

“The factory had a basic fire-fighting system which did not work,” police officer Hoda said.

Yesterday’s accident in Sivakasi occurred after at least 20 people died similarly in another fireworks factory in 2005.

Other than these fire-prone fireworks units, targeted in the past by local and international child rights groups for employing minors, Sivakasi is also India’s main safety matches manufacturing centre.

Both prime minister Manmohan Singh and state chief minister J Jayalalitha expressed shock over the tragedy and each announced 200,000 rupees (€2,850) to be paid as compensation to the families of the deceased. The seriously injured are to receive 50,000 rupees (€713), officials said.