At least 40 people have been killed and 60 others injured, some with serious burns, in a massive blaze that raged on for hours at a fireworks factory in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, police have said.
"We have not been able to enter the factory because of the smoke. The number of casualties may rise."
- Ramamurthy, deputy police chief
Most of the dead were workers in the Om Siva Shakti factory in the town of Sivakasi, the centre of India's firecracker industry, about 540km southwest of the state capital Chennai.
Police officer Najmul Huda said rescue workers and firefighters initially could not get into the building as the fire raged on Wednesday, triggering deafening explosions of firecrackers.
The fire, which spread to 40 of the factory's 60 rooms, was put out more than five hours after it began, witnesses and news reports said. Photographs showed the factory had burned to rubble and fireworks littered the ground.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, police officer P Karupaiah said.
Large amounts of firecrackers and raw materials had been stored in the factory with major Hindu festivals weeks away.
Factory 'operated illegally'
Television channels showed huge clouds of smoke billowing out of the factory, with repeated bursts of firecrackers resounding in the background.
Rescue teams used makeshift stretchers to ferry victims to ambulances.
|Families of the victims killed in the Om Siva Shakti factory fire in the town of Sivakasi were inconsolable [Reuters]
Police were unable to determine how many of the plant's 250 workers remained trapped inside as the fire raged out of control.
"We have not been able to enter the factory because of the smoke. The number of casualties may rise," the deputy police chief, who identified himself only as Ramamurthy, told the Reuters news agency.
The Press Trust of India news agency said that about 300 people were working in the factory and 52 had died.
Workers fled the area, but many were killed as they waited at a nearby warehouse which also caught fire and exploded, Huda told reporters.
Huda said authorities had suspended the factory's licence a day earlier after finding major safety violations.
The management, however, continued to operate the factory illegally on Wednesday, he said.
Sivakasi town in Tamil Nadu state is India's biggest hub for the manufacture of matches and firecrackers.
The CNN-IBN television news channel said rescue workers had completed a search of the devastated building for trapped workers.