A massive fire that erupted at one of India’s largest military ammunition depots Tuesday killed at least 16 soldiers and firefighters, reigniting safety concerns about military equipment and installations.
The blaze broke out in the early hours at the high-security facility which stores bombs, grenades and other ordnance outside the central city of Pulgaon. Flames lit up the night sky.
Thousands of families were evacuated from nearby towns and villages in the western state of Maharashtra for fear of secondary explosions at the huge depot.
India’s director general of military operations, Ranbir Singh, said two army officers, one soldier and 13 firefighters were killed in the blaze, updating earlier reports quoting officials of 17 soldiers dead.
“Two officers and 15 personnel … were also injured” and taken to hospital, Lieutenant General Singh told reporters in New Delhi.
A probe has been ordered into the cause of the blaze, which started at 1:00 am (2030 GMT Monday) and was confined to one of the numerous sheds storing “highly sensitive ammunition”, an army statement said.
Firefighters using 10 engines worked through the night to contain the blaze which was finally brought under control just over five hours later, Ramesh Barde, a fire officer from the nearby city of Nagpur, told AFP.
India’s armed forces have a history of fires and other accidents which are sometimes blamed on lax safety standards. Tuesday’s was the worst incident since a submarine fire killed 18 sailors three years ago.
Colonel Danveer Singh, an associate editor at Indian Defence Review magazine, said ammunition was often stored out in the open at depots, making it susceptible to fire during hot summer months.
“We aren’t short of ammunition or production capabilities but lack space to safely store them,” he told AFP.
The facility, spread over 2,800 hectares (7,000 acres), is one of the largest in India and provides ammunition for the army, navy and air force. Trains transport stockpiles on kilometers of railways lines around its grounds, according to an expert.
Manoj Joshi, a security expert at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, told AFP the government should undertake a “fresh audit” of all ammunition depots following the disaster.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said Tuesday’s fire had caused a “great loss of lives and property” while Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter that his “thoughts are with the bereaved families”.
The Press Trust of India news agency had earlier reported that two officers and 15 members of India’s Defence Security Corps, whose personnel keep a close watch at defence sites across the country, had died, citing an army officer.
A fire on the submarine INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai in 2013 sank the vessel and left 18 sailors dead. In February 2014 a fire aboard a nuclear submarine killed two officers off the Mumbai coast.
In 2007, in the northern region of Indian Kashmir, a fire wrecked an ammunition dump, setting off artillery shells and mortar rounds which rained down on surrounding villages. At least 17 people were killed and two dozen injured.
A fire ripped through one of the army’s largest ammunition depots in 2010 in Kolkata, destroying 150 tonnes of explosives and ammunition. No one was killed in that accident.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag were to visit the accident site, around 700 kilometers (435 miles) east of Mumbai, later Tuesday.