Pulgaon: At least 16 persons, including a lieutenant colonel and a major, were killed and 17 injured in a massive fire at India's largest ammunition depot in Maharashtra's Pulgaon town early Tuesday, raising questions about alleged safety violations that endanger human lives and arsenal stocks at dozens of such facilities in the country.
The cause of the blaze that started around 1 a.m. was not immediately known. The sprawling 7,000-acre depot, some 115 km from Nagpur, houses the country's biggest stockpile of weapons, including Brahmos missiles, AK47 rifles, other arms and ammunition, bombs and explosive items.
Director General Military Operations (DGMO) Lt Gen Ranbir Singh told reporters in Delhi that the fire was "doused completely" and the "situation brought under control". But not before two army officers, a soldier and 13 civilian fire fighters lost their lives.
The dead officers were identified as Lt Col RS Pawar and Major Mohan K who were based at the depot.
Two more officers, nine soldiers and six civilian fire fighters were injured. They were taken to a hospital in Wardha where their condition was reported to be stable. The army revised its earlier death toll of 17.
Eyewitnesses and military officials said loud explosions followed a massive fireball at one of the sheds at the depot where ammunition with expired shelf life is also disposed. The depot recently won an award for using solar energy to dispose of expired ammunition.
Ranbir Singh said fire fighting mechanism was immediately put into place "as per the laid down procedures" and the blaze was restricted "to one shed only that contained highly sensitive ammunition".
The army and civil administration as a precaution got five nearby villages evacuated amid deafening explosions and rising flames at the depot. However, some 1,000 men and women from these villages returned to their homes by Tuesday afternoon.
The army has ordered a probe into the incident and the extent of damage to defence assets was being ascertained, Ranbir Singh said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis expressed grief over the loss of lives in the disaster.
"Pained by loss of lives caused by a fire at Central Ammunition Depot in Pulgaon, Maharashtra. My thoughts are with the bereaved families," Modi tweeted.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Indian Army chief General Dalbir Singh visited the depot that supplies ammunition to the entire western sector of the Indian Army.
Parrikar told reporters that the probe would determine the exact causes of the blaze and "whether it was a sabotage or an accident".
There have been many instances of explosions causing blazes at various ordnance depots in India that has the world's third largest army after the US and China.
The then defence minister A.K. Antony in 2012 told parliament that India had lost about Rs 710 crore, or $140 million, worth of arms and ammunition in five incidents of fire at depots in Kashmir's Khundroo, Gujarat's Bhuj and Panagarh in West Bengal.