| A woman wails near a house destroyed under the impact of the jeep explosion. (PTI)
Tindivanam, April 7: A jeep exploded at a village near Chennai this afternoon, killing at least 17 people and wounding 27, many of them curious villagers who had gathered around the vehicle after it caught fire, police said.
Carrying gelatin sticks and slurry from a factory, the jeep was on National Highway 45 — at the entrance to Sendur village, about 150 km from Chennai — when a fire was ignited possibly by a spark from the engine.
Drawn by the smoke, villagers flocked to the vehicle to help put out the fire. Within seconds, it blew up, leaving a trail of death and shattering homes in this sleepy village.
The explosion severely damaged over 50 houses and buildings, witnesses said. The tiled roofs of some of them, including Panchayat Union Middle School, caved in.
“Fortunately, today being Saturday was a holiday and nearly 300 students had a miraculous escape,” said K. Sarangapani, one of the injured.
“I saw an aged resident of the village, Sundararama Reddiyar, and a little girl caught in the blast,” he said.
Most of the victims and the wounded, including the man and the girl Sarangapani saw dying, were passengers of a private bus going to nearby Villupuram.
They had got off a few minutes earlier, and while some of them were trying to put out the smoke in the jeep, others were plucking tamarind from a roadside tree when the blast occurred.
Veermathu, a farm worker, shuddered as he recalled the rows of bodies lying under a thick cloud of smoke.
“I was working in a field nearly a kilometre away when I heard the deafening sound,” he said.
The blast spared potter Nagappa Udayar and his teenaged daughter Manjula but not the home they had built a few months ago.
The father and daughter had gone out when the jeep blew up. They returned an hour later to find the glass-panes of their house broken, the television and refrigerator smashed to pieces and doors cracked.
Tamil Nadu director-general of police D. Mukherjee said that although the jeep was carrying “licensed explosives”, it had possibly packed in “some detonators” as well. Gelatin sticks and detonators are not supposed to be transported together.
The injured have been admitted to hospitals in Tindivanam and Pondicherry. Villagers fear the toll could rise to 50.
The driver of the jeep, which was smashed beyond recognition, and his assistant were among the dead. Some witnesses claimed to have seen two others who were in the jeep running away after the vehicle caught fire.
From the number plate of the wrecked jeep, the police traced its owner. They found out that the jeep used to regularly carry explosives for a licensed dealer, Manalipattu G. Sekar, from a nearby warehouse, which has since been sealed.
Sekar has been detained for questioning.
The explosives, meant for the national highway’s four-lane widening project, are used by contractors to clear rocky stretches.
State local administration minister M.K. Stalin has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 1 lakh to the next of kin of the dead.