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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India – A massive fire broke out during a fireworks display in a Hindu temple in south India early Sunday, killing more than 80 people and injuring at least 250 others, a top official said.
The fire started when a spark from the fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were being stored at the Puttingal temple complex in Paravoor village, a few hours north of Kerala's state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, State Home Minister Ramesh Chennitala.
Thousands had been packed into the temple complex when a big explosion erupted around 3 a.m., officials said. The blaze then spread quickly through the temple, trapping devotees within.
At least 84 people were killed, said a Kerala police official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name to journalists.
Local TV channels broadcast images of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the night sky. Successive explosions from the building storing the fireworks sent huge chunks of concrete flying as far as a kilometer (a half mile), according to resident Jayashree Harikrishnan.
"Chunks landed in our yard," she said.
Krishna Das, a resident of Paravoor village, said he had started walking away from the temple as the fireworks display was about to end when a deafening explosion followed by a series of blasts went off.
"I had been in the temple just a few minutes before watching the fireworks," Das said. He said he saw scores of people running away, chased by fire and chunks of concrete and plaster from the temple building.
Das said as soon as the first explosion was heard, a power outage hit the complex.
"It was complete chaos. People were screaming in the dark. Ambulance sirens went off, and in the darkness no one knew how to find their way out of the complex," he said.
He said that six ambulances had been parked outside the temple complex as a precaution. They were used to rush the injured to hospitals in the nearby cities of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram.
Local villagers and police pulled out the injured from under slabs of concrete after the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed.
By morning, firefighters had brought the blaze under control, officials said. Rescuers were sifting through the wreckage in search of survivors, while backhoes were clearing the debris and ambulances driving away the injured.
As day broke, thousands of anxious relatives reached the temple in search of their loved ones. Many wept and pressed police officials and rescue workers for information on their family members.
Every year, the temple holds a competitive fireworks display, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.
This year's competition was taking place even though there was no permission from district authorities, said Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
The state's High Court had earlier issued orders on how to safely store fireworks at temples to prevent accidental fires. The court says that the fireworks must be stored more than 100 meters (yards) away from the temple.
Such orders were flouted at the Paravoor temple, said Loknath Behera, a top police official.
"We will be investigating how the orders were flouted and who was responsible for the decision to go ahead with the firework display," Chandy said.
State Labor Minister Shibu Baby John said that the victims will be compensated.
Associated Press writers Nirmala George and Katy Daigle in New Delhi contributed to this report.