Sabarimala stampede: Toll rises to 104, Kerala govt announces judicial probe
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Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan has announced a judicial inquiry into the mishap and declared a solatium of Rs 5 lakh each for the family of these killed.
The deceased included one Sri Lankan woman while majority of them were from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as the grassland forest trekking path known as 'Pullumedu' in the Periyar tiger reserve, is trodden by devotees from these states.
The Sri Lankan pilgrim who died was identified as Sha Kantha, a member of 18-member pilgrim team from the island nation.
The preliminary report by Idukki District administration stampede was caused by commotion created by minor mishap involving a jeep and an auto-rikshaw which which fell off to sides after grazing each other while plying the narrow trekking route.
This created a panic among the people trekking route flooded with pilgrims and smaller vehicles paving the way for the stampede.
People them started falling and getting tossed around being trampled upon as the spot was enveloped by darkness and mist with poor lighting on the way.
Police said they did not receive any complaints of any missing cases the toll unlikely to go up further.
Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the toll in the stampede that took place last night has climbed to 104.
"The pilgrims were coming to catch a bus when there was a stampede at Pulmedu. This resulted in the death of 104 people, while more than 50 were injured," Balakrishnan, who is in Kolkata for the CPI(M) politburo meeting, told reporters.
Out of the dead, only 54 have been identified so far and most of them belong to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he said.
"The inquest and post-mortem will be done today of the identified bodies," the minister said.
State DGP Jacob Punnoose said over 50 bodies have been identified so far. They are mostly from the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he said. Eighteen of the dead hailed from Tamil Nadu, 12 from Karnataka and two each from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of the pilgrims.
PM sanctioned a relief of Rs one lakh each to the next of kin of those killed in the stampede and Rs 50,000 to those injured from the Prime Minister's relief fund.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi also expresses her deep anguish and shock over the tragedy in Sabarimala.
Most of the victims who perished were from Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. They were returning home through the forest route after the Makarajyoti darshan, considered a celestial phenomenon, at the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa.
The tragedy occurred at Pulmedu in Vandiperiyar when a jeep carrying pilgrims ploughed into a crowd and overturned, killing some on the spot and triggering the stampede, rescuers said.
Achuthanandan, who has called an emergency meeting in Thiruvanthapuram to discuss rescue operations, said the Prime Minister has assured the state all help.
"The Kerala government has decided to compensate all those who lost their families. We have also set up a special team and the collector is monitoring rescue operations in Sabarimala. A probe will also be constituted to find out the cause of the incident," he said.
The state government has also declared a three day mourning.
Kerala Finance Minister T M Thomas Issac said a crime branch probe would be conducted to ascertain the exact cause of the tragedy.
The government would bear the expenses for the treatment of those injured, whether they were in government or private hospitals. The Government would officially communicate this matter to all private hospitals, Isaac said.
As an immediate assistance, the government had announced a relief of Rs 5000 to the families of those killed, he said.
Issac, who is camping at Vandiperiyar, said the bodies of those killed would be taken to their respective states by the state government after post-mortem.
Punnoose said the number of injured was "quite few" because they were evacuated first and admitted to a hospital in Tamil Nadu. Some others received minor injuries.
Relatives of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, who have not returned home, arrived here looking for them, Punnoose said, adding photographs and particulars of the dead would be made available to help them locate their dear ones.
Aneesh, one of the early rescuers to reach the spot, said the mishap was caused by the jeep which ran into the crowd and turned turtle.
While some people who got trapped under the jeep died, it also set off a wave of panic, triggering a stampede as thousands of pilgrims had converged at Pulmedu area, used mostly by devotees from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh for returning home after darshan, he said.
"I have never seen such a huge crowd at Pulmedu in my life. The flow of pilgrims returning was much more than anybody's expectations", Aneesh, who hails from the area, said.
Kerala Deveswom Minister Kadannapally Ramachandran said the rush of pilgrims was much higher than expected.
"Though arrangements for controlling the crowd were on a usual scale, the flow of people had been much more than all expectations", the minister said from Vandiperiyar.
The two-month long pilgrimage which began in mid-November was, by and large, incident-free till last night.
Over 30 million devotees had visited the shrine during the season.
Ten years ago, a stampede at Pampa on way to the hill shrine killed 50 people on the occasion of Makar Jyoti.
Defence Minister A K Antony has offered Kerala government all help from defence forces for rescue operations.
A special team of the National Disaster Response Force is at the spot. A helpline number - 04869222049 - has been set up to help the families of the victims.
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