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Sabarimala stampede autopsies end, most bodies handed over to kin

Saturday January 15, 2011 08:58:03 PM, IANS

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Vandiperiyar/Kumily (Kerala): The marathon autopsies of the 102 Sabarimala pilgrims who lost their lives in a stampede ended Saturday evening at the Kumily government hospital. Most of the bodies have been handed over to the relatives, officials said.

Billed as the single biggest such effort in Kerala, the autopsies by a team of 60 doctors began Saturday morning and ended at 5 p.m.

The stampede occurred Friday night at Pulumedu near Vandiperiyar town where about a lakh of pilgrims had gathered to watch the revered Makara Jyothi light on the Sabarimala hills.

Health officials who oversaw the autopsies said 90 bodies have been identified of which 70 bodies have been handed over to the relatives. As many as 18 bodies have been sent to Kochi for embalming.

According to officials, the 12 unidentified bodies will be sent to the Kottayam Medical College.

Kerala chief Minister V.S. Achuthanadan, who visited the Kumily hospital Saturday morning, said the government will seek a judicial probe into the tragedy.

He also announced a compensation of Rs.500,000 to the families of each of those killed. Also Rs.50,000 will be granted to the seriously injured and Rs.25,000 to those with minor injuries.

The state has declared three days of mourning.

The government made elaborate arrangements and deployed 80 ambulances to transport the bodies of the ill-fated pilgrims to their home towns. Each ambulance was accompanied by a government official.

Meanwhile the Congress-led opposition slammed the failure of the government in ensuring a safe pilgrimage.

"The government failed miserably in ensuring security measures that is a must in a place like Sabarimala, where the number of pilgrims has been growing every season. They have also failed in setting up proper infrastructure there," said leader of opposition Oommen Chandy, who has been camping at Vandiperiyar since Friday night.

State Congress chief Ramesh Chennithala asked the government to increase the compensation amount from half a million to Rs.1 million.

Earlier in the day, grieving relatives thronged mortuaries to identify their kin who lost their lives in the tragedy.

A government report Saturday said the Friday night stampede in the Pulumedu forest was caused after a tiff between autorickshaw and taxi drivers and pilgrims turned violent.

Nearly 60 people are said to be injured.

The stampede occurred around 8 p.m. Friday when the pilgrims were returning after watching the celestial Makara Jyothi light, the most important event of the two-month pilgrimage, from a hillock some 30 km from the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa.

The Pulumedu forested area is about 10 km from the Vandiperiyar town. Pilgrims gather at its hillock to watch the Makara Jyothi of Sabarimala shrine.

A report of the state forest department said that a huge crowd had gathered at the Pulumedu hillock, and after seeing the Makara Jyothi light, some of the devotees got into an autorickshaw to go back to Vandiperiyar as the driver was charging less than the jeeps that were being run as taxis.

This sparked off a quarrel between the auto and jeep drivers and some devotees too joined in. The argument turned ugly when some angry pilgrims smashed the windscreens of the jeeps, leading to panic among the crowd and a stampede, the report said.

A witness said the road leading to the hillock was narrow and the crowds returning were huge and unmanageable. The policemen were too few to handle the commotion.

The bodies were first brought to the Vandiperiyar Government Hospital and from there they were moved to the Government Hospital in Kumily in Idukki district, nearly 15 km from the accident site.

The dead include one pilgrim from Sri Lanka, 29 from Tamil Nadu, 25 from Karnataka, 16 from Andhra Pradesh and three from Kerala, hospital authorities said.

Seven people have been admitted at Theni Medical College in Tamil Nadu, which is near the Kerala border.

Earlier, state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who visited the Kumily hospital, said a jeep had lost control and rammed into some pilgrims when over a lakh people were returning to the base of the hillock, leading to the chaos.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Achuthanandan Saturday morning to convey his grief. He also sanctioned a relief of Rs.1 lakh to the kin of each of those killed and Rs.50,000 for the injured from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund, PMO sources in New Delhi said.

Calling it a national tragedy, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said he had directed the defence forces to see that all help is provided.

State Health Minister P.K. Sreemathi also visited the Kumily Government Hospital.

The Sabarimala temple is in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district, situated in the Western Ghat ranges at an altitude of 914 metres above sea level, four km uphill from the Pampa river.

Pampa, the base camp to the Sabarimala temple, has been overflowing with pilgrims over the past few days.

The sighting of the Makara Jyothi flame on the horizon marks the finale of the two-month-long pilgrim season at the mountain shrine.







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