Two days after they were killed in a devastating apartment fire in Kuwait’s Al Ahmadi governorate, the bodies of 45 Indian workers were on Friday brought back to India by an Indian Air Force C130J aircraft, and given a guard of honour by senior government officials, including minister of state for external affairs Kirti Vardhan Singh and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Relatives mourn near the deceased after the coffins’ arrival on an Indian Air Force plane from Kuwait at the Cochin International Airport in Kochi on June 14. (AFP)

The aircraft carrying the coffins first landed in Kochi on Friday morning, where 31 were unloaded and sent to respective villages in three states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — and then made its way to New Delhi, where it was received by three members of Parliament. The rest of the 14 dead are from nine different states, most of them in northern India.

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Wednesday’s fire in the Al-Mangaf building, the worst building fire in the Gulf country’s history, broke out at around 4.30am, and most deaths were due to smoke inhalation with most residents caught unawares. NBTC group, an engineering and construction firm partially owned by 69-year-old KG Abraham, an industrialist originally from Kerala, had rented the building to house 195 workers, most of them workers from southern states.

Investigations in Kuwait have revealed that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, and two people have been held on charges that include “killing and injury by error due to negligence of security and safety precautions against fires”. A team probing the fire have found that inflammable material was used as partitions between apartments and between rooms, causing thick black smoke which suffocated people as they tried to run down the stairwell. Of the 49 people dead, 45 were from India, authorities had said on Thursday. On Friday however, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Abdullah Al-Yahya said that one more person had succumbed to injuries, taking the death toll to 50, of which 46 were Indians.

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When 31 bodies — 23 from Kerala, seven from Tamil Nadu and one from Karnataka — were brought out of the IAF aircraft on Friday morning, they were given a guard of honour by the Kerala police and Kerala CM Vijayan, and a host of others ministers — Union minister of state for petroleum and tourism Suresh Gopi and Tamil Nadu minister for minorities welfare KS Masthan. Each of them, as well as several ministers in the state government, MLAs, MPs and leaders of political party them sombrely placed wreaths on each coffin.

“The people who have succumbed in this tragedy were those who had gone (to Kuwait) as part of earning their livelihood. Therefore, as much as we help their families, it will never be enough. I implore the Indian government to work with Kuwait to speed up the process of granting them adequate compensation. This is indeed a massive tragedy for Kerala and its people,” Vijayan said.

MoS Kirti Vardhan Singh, who flew to Kuwait on the instructions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday to facilitate relief and rescue efforts, and travelled back with the bodies on Friday, said: “The moment our government found out that this incident had taken place, Prime Minister immediately convened a meeting and instructed us to reach Kuwait to take all possible steps so that the mortal remains can be brought back as soon as possible.”

Singh said that before the team led by him had even reached Kuwait, the PM had already spoken to the Kuwaiti foreign minister and the Emir of Kuwait. “I would like to thank the authorities as they did everything possible. Identification, which can take a week or ten days, was done in a short time,” Singh said.

Shortly after noon, special ambulances carrying the bodies of the 31 people from the southern states left Kochi airport and made their way to their respective hometowns. In Chavakkad, Thrissur district, friends and family members of 44-year-old Binoy Thomas fought back tears as his mortal remains were placed on a table under a tarpaulin sheet in front of an under-construction home in the afternoon. Thomas had flown to Kuwait on June 5 after he had secured a job as a staff member at a supermarket run by NBTC group. Ten days later, his family was making arrangements for his funeral.

“His family consisted of his wife and two children. They continue to live in an under-construction home which doesn’t even have a proper toilet. Binoy used to work as a staff member at a local footwear shop, but he knew the meagre income wasn’t enough. So he left for Kuwait to fulfil his dream of completing the construction of his unfinished home,” said Shahina Salim, the local councillor who helped Thomas in securing a loan to stave off mounting debt.

Over 200km away, in Sooranad in Kollam, hundreds of people thronged the home of U Shameer, 34, to pay their respects before his remains were interred in a graveyard in the village. Employed as a driver with NBTC Group for the past eight years, Shameer was the first to be identified among the Indian fire victims in Kuwait on Wednesday morning. “He came home around eight months ago and like always, found time to connect with neighbours like us and the wider community. That is why there are so many people who have come to see him one last time,” his neighbour Aravind said.

The Kerala government has announced ex-gratia of 5 lakh each to the families of the deceased and 1 lakh to the injured. Expatriate industrialists such as MA Yusuff Ali and Ravi Pillai have promised to give 5 lakh and 2 lakh each to the families while the NBTC Group has announced 8 lakh each to kin of the dead and a job for dependents.

In Delhi, 14 bodies of workers from the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana and Punjab were received by MPs Yogesh Chandolia and Kamaljeet Sehrawat at Palam airport. They were all expected to be taken to their respective villages late on Friday night and Saturday morning.

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