Sivakasi: In one of the worst fire tragedies in Tamil Nadu, 54 persons were charred to death and 50 others injured on Wednesday when a devastating blaze swept through a cracker factory complex at nearby Mudhalipatti.
The factory and 48 sheds in the complex exploded in flames as the fire broke out when workers were mixing chemicals to make fancy fire crackers, trapping many in the inferno, police and fire brigade said.
The dead bodies were accounted for by doctors at Sivakasi (25), Virudhunagar (15), Sattur (13) and Madurai (1).
The district authorities, however, put the toll at 36.
Explosions could be heard across more than two square km in the sleepy village as thick plumes of smoke engulfed the area with bodies burnt beyond recognition and scores of injured lay all round presenting a sight of a battle zone.
Almost all those killed were workers, with some persons who rushed inside the Omshakthi factory complex to try and rescue those trapped inside also falling victim to the blaze, police said.
All the victims suffered more than 80 percent burns.
The entire production had been stored in a godown against official advice, they said.
Fire fighters handicapped by lack of proper equipment, including masks, to tackle such major fires had to battle for four hours to douse the raging flames after struggling to enter the complex with thick smoke hampering their efforts.
Labour department officials said the factory owner, who is
absconding, had not paid heed to their advice against storing most of the stock of chemicals in one area.
Victims screamed for help and many of the injured were carried on motorbikes, cots and on the shoulders of rescuers to hospitals, according to eyewitnesses.
Officials said most workers were amateur and some trained in West Bengal were not fluent in Tamil to warn the people.
Cracker units at Sivakasi, accounting for 90 per cent of firecracker production in the country, function at `breakneck speed` ahead of the Deepavali festival, Virudhunagar District Superintendent of Police Najmul Hoda said.
A factory official said 300 persons were at work at the unit at the time of the incident.
Thousands of people thronged the area near the factory to inquire about the fate of their relatives working in the unit.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced a compensation of Rs two lakh each to next of kin of the deceased and deputed a team of five ministers to oversee relief work.
In October 2009, 32 people, most of them Deepavali shoppers, were killed at a cracker godown fire in Pallipattu in Tiruvallur district.
Senior minister O Panneerselvam and four other colleagues rushed to the spot to oversee relief operations.
Sivakasi is home to roughly around 450 factories employing 40,000 people and over one lakh indirectly, at an estimated annual turnover of between Rs 800 and Rs 1000 crore.