MUMBAI: A fire at one of India’s largest military ammunition depots on Tuesday killed at least 17 people and injured scores more, officials said, as footage showed flames lighting up the night sky.
The blaze broke out overnight at the high security depot stockpiling tons of weapons and ammunition near the city of Nagpur in central India.
“Seventeen people have died. Nineteen are injured but are out of danger,” Smita Patil, superintendent of Wardha district police, told Agence France-Presse by phone from the scene.
“An operation is in progress and the fire has been brought under control,” Patil added.
Thousands of families living in nearby towns and villages have been evacuated from surrounding areas in Pulgaon, in the western state of Maharashtra, amid fears of secondary explosions at the depot.
The Press Trust of India news agency said two officers were among the 17 soldiers to have died, while the NDTV network said the huge blaze had broken out after an explosion.
India’s military has a history of fires and other accidents that have been blamed on lax safety standards, including a blaze on a submarine that left two officers dead off the Mumbai coast in 2014.
Firefighters using ten fire engines worked through the night to contain the depot blaze, Ramesh Barde, a fire officer with the Nagpur fire department, told Agence France-Presse.
“The fire broke out at 1:30 a.m. (2100 GMT Monday) and nearby fire engines reached the venue by 2:30 am,” he said.
“The fire was brought under control by 6:15 a.m. The situation is under control and a report is being prepared,” he added, speaking from the scene.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “pained by loss of lives”, adding on Twitter that his “thoughts are with the bereaved families”.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said the accident had caused a “great loss of lives and property”.
“It’s a very unfortunate incident. Many of our men were killed in the blaze,” he told reporters.
In 2007, in the northern region of Indian Kashmir, a fire wrecked an ammunition dump, exploding artillery shells and mortar rounds, which rained down on surrounding villages. At least 17 people were killed and two dozen injured.
A fire also ripped through one of the army’s largest ammunition depots in 2010 in Kolkata, destroying 150 tons of explosives and ammunition. No-one was killed in the accident.
Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was reportedly on his way to the accident site, around 700 kilometers (435 miles) east of Mumbai.