| A bulldozer clears debris after the blast in Athur town. (Reuters)
Chennai, Sept. 17: At least 17 people were killed and 27 injured in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district late last night when sparks from exploding crackers blew up a gas-powered van, flattening over a dozen houses.
The explosion, which occurred around 11.30 pm, caught residents of Athur town unawares. Most of the victims — seven men, five women and five children — were crushed under the debris of their collapsed homes as they slept.
Among the injured, several of them critically, five have been admitted to the Mohan Kumaramangalam Government Medical College Hospital in Salem and 18 to the Athur hospital.
This is the second major explosion in the state in the last one year after the blast at the Tamilnadu Explosives Factory at Katpadi near Vellore claimed over 25 lives.
Salem district superintendent of police K.C. Mahali, who rushed to the spot with district collector J. Radhakrishnan, said fire-crackers stored in a gunny bag caught fire, apparently due to friction, while being loaded into a Maruti van. The crackers had been stored in a house and were meant for use in the coming Diwali festival.
Mahali said preliminary investigations had revealed that the flying sparks almost instantly ignited the two gas cylinders in the rear of the vehicle, which has been twisted out of shape.
The narrowness of the lane magnified the intensity of the blast. The row of houses close to the exploded vehicle bore the brunt. Power supply to the area was snapped. “Over 15 houses have been destroyed,” Mahali said. As the walls came crashing down, many were caught unawares in the debris, he added.
Survivors were seen weeping over their dead beside the scattered debris. Although initially there were conflicting versions, Mahali said investigations so far have shown “no militancy or anti-social angle” to the blast. “Two gas cylinders exploding can cause such an impact,” he said, asked about reports questioning how such damage was possible in so short a time.
Fire services personnel and rescue teams that rushed to the spot used cranes to clear the debris and lift the mutilated bodies. Most of the bodies had been identified, Mahali said.
Chief minister Jayalalithaa has directed Salem’s district collector to order a probe by the district revenue officer. She also sent health minister S. Semmalai to meet families of the victims and supervise rescue efforts, which were still on.
The chief minister has announced a solatium of Rs 50,000 each to families of those killed and Rs 15,000 to the seriously injured.
Insinuating a conspiracy, the DMK has demanded a CBI probe.