NEW DELHI // At least 50 people have been reported dead and 60 injured in a fire that erupted in a fireworks factory in Sivakasi, in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The fire, which broke out yesterday in a factory owned by Om Siva Sakthi Fireworks, raged for nearly four hours before it was brought under control. In that time, it had swept through rooms full of chemicals and spread to storage sheds 200 feet away.
Sivakasi, considered the fireworks capital of India in which there are about 700 licensed fireworks factories in a town of 72,000, is about 500 kilometres south-west of Chennai, the state capital.
Between 250 and 300 employees worked in the factory, and several were initially feared trapped and killed in 40 of the 60 rooms thatcollapsed during the fire.
The fire also set off large explosions, which injured and killed some onlookers who had assembled near the factory.
"The blast and explosions went on for quite some time, so we couldn't go in," Najmul Huda, Sivakasi's superintendent of police, explained to television camera crews yesterday.
The injured were taken to the government hospital in Sivakasi or to hospitals in the nearby cities of Madurai and Virudhnagar.
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has announced a compensation payment of 200,000 rupees (Dh13,138) to each of the families of the deceased, and 50,000 rupees to those injured in the fire.
The fire occurred as Sivakasi's fireworks factories begin to go into overdrive ahead of the Hindu festival of Diwali in November, which families traditionally celebrate with large firework displays.
The town's fireworks industry is worth about 15 billion rupees.
Many of these factories are poorly equipped to handle fires and emergencies, P Raja Gopal, president of Needs, a local NGO that investigates incidents of child-labor in Sivakasi, said yesterday.
"I've seen eight people squeezed into a room meant for four, and often some of these factories won't even have the buckets full of sand that you see in cinema theatres sometimes, let alone more sophisticated firefighting equipment," Mr Gopal said.
In his estimate, more than 1,000 people have died in accidents in fireworks factories over the last decade, and "this fire is among the very worst of these accidents", he said.
But J Tamilselvan, president of the Sivakasi-based Indian Fireworks Association, argued that most factories had safety norms and equipment "in perfect order".
Mr Tamilselvan said that he had learnt the fire started "because somebody purposely lit a firecracker and threw it into one of the rooms." But other sources, including police and fire officials, have said that the cause of the fire is as yet unknown.
Mr Tamilselvan said many registered fireworks manufacturers farmed out their work to smaller outfits, which often have little regard for regulations.
"There are at most two or three government officials who are supposed to conduct safety checks of these factories, and there are at least 700 factories to look at, if not more," Mr Gopal said. "So how can all of these be monitored closely?
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse