‘State of shock’: Kuwait fire leaves many families bereft in India’s Kerala

Most of the victims in the deadly blaze that engulfed a block housing immigrant workers are from India.

Kerala's Minister for Health and Woman and Child Development Veena George consoles the mother of a victim of Kuwait fire
Kerala's Health Minister Veena George consoles the mother of a victim of Kuwait fire in Pathanamthitta district in India's southern state [Stringer/Reuters]

From a father-of-two who planned to leave his job to a 29-year-old due to visit his family in August, two dozen Indians from the southern state of Kerala died in a fire that ripped through a labour-housing facility in Kuwait, leaving their families bereft.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday said 40 Indians died in the blaze at a building housing workers in Kuwait’s Mangaf city, which also killed at least nine others, including three Philippine nationals.

Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Abdullah al-Yahya told reporters on Thursday that one person succumbed to injuries, taking the number of deaths to at least 50.

More than 50 other workers were injured, some critically, but their nationalities could not immediately be confirmed by the Kuwaiti government.

Most of oil-rich Kuwait’s four million-plus population is made up of foreigners, many of them from South and Southeast Asia working in construction and service industries. They often live in overcrowded accommodations.

For decades, a disproportionately large share of Indian workers in the Gulf have been drawn from Kerala, a densely populated state along southern India’s Arabian Sea coast.

In Kerala, Norka Roots, a government agency for the state residents living outside, placed the number of dead from the state at 24. The federal government arranged a special flight to bring the bodies, Norka secretary K Vasuki said.

In a post on X late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country was “doing everything possible to assist those affected by this gruesome fire tragedy”. Next of kin will receive payments of 200,000 rupees ($2,400), his office announced.

Kirti Vardhan Singh, India’s junior foreign minister, reached Kuwait on an Indian Air Force plane to help survivors and repatriate remains. “Some of the bodies have been charred beyond recognition, so DNA tests [are] under way to identify the victims,” he told Indian media.

People walk past a building which was ingulfed by fire, in Kuwait City
People walk past the building in Mangaf where the deadly fire took place [Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP]

‘State of shock’

News of the disaster spread quickly in Kerala.

Among the victims from the state was Muralidharan Nair, who had been working in Kuwait for 32 years, including 10 as a senior supervisor in the company that owned the housing facility where the fire broke out.

“He came on leave in December for two months with a plan to end his career in Kuwait. The company called him back,” his brother, Vinu V Nair, told the Reuters news agency, adding that the family identified the 61-year-old from a list of names published by India’s embassy. His two roommates also died in the blaze.

The family of Saju Varghese, 56, found out about the fire from television and social media and confirmed his death from friends and relatives in Kuwait.

Working in the Gulf nation for the last 21 years, Varghese planned to visit Kerala later this month to arrange his daughter’s higher education.

“The family is in a state of shock,” their neighbour, George Samuel, said.

Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and acting Interior Minister, Fahad Yusuf Al-Sabah speaks with police officers in front of a burnt building
Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister Fahad Yusuf Al-Sabah speaks with police officers in front of the burned building [Reuters]

Another victim, Stephin Abraham Sabu, 29, who worked as an engineer in Kuwait since 2019, called home almost daily.

He had visited his hometown Kottayam “two or three times” since he left, and had booked air tickets to return in August for the housewarming of his family’s new home and to help them buy a new car, his friends said.

Sabu’s father has a small shop in Kottayam while his mother is a housewife. His brother, Febin, also works in Kuwait but lives separately.

Authorities in Kuwait have not officially announced the nationalities of those who died. But the other dead included three Filipino workers, Leo Cacdac, the Philippine migrant workers minister, said in a statement on Thursday. Two other Filipinos were hospitalised and in critical condition.

Kuwaiti officials have detained the building’s owner over potential negligence and have warned that any blocks that flout safety rules will be closed.

The blaze was one of the worst seen in Kuwait, which borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and sits on about 7 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.

In 2009, 57 people died when a Kuwaiti woman, apparently seeking revenge, set fire to a tent at a wedding party when her husband married a second wife.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies