Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Five charged over children's fiery deaths

NEGLIGENCE The school cook and headmistress were among those arrested after an out-of-control kitchen fire in India claimed the lives of 88 children

AFP , KUMBAKONAM, INDIA

An Indian man places a chocolate on the covered body of his 8-year-old son, Praveen, at a burial ground in Kumbakonam, 320km southwest of the southern Indian city of Madras, yesterday. Parents broke down in tears as the bodies of their children were buried or cremated yesterday after a fire killed 88 pupils.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Indian police said yesterday they had charged five people with negligence over the deaths of 88 children in a fire that engulfed a primary school in southern Tamil Nadu state.

The arrests of the school's headmistress and four other officials came a day after the fire swept through the third-storey thatched-roofed Saraswati Primary School in Kumbakonam on Friday and as anguished parents held funerals for their dead children.

The children were mostly aged between six and 10 years.

District Administrator J. Radha-krishnan identified the five arrested as Shantha Lakshmi, headmistress of the school, and two other school managers, the school cook and the organizer of the noon meal center.

"They have been charged with gross negligence, leading to deaths and some other sections of the Indian Penal Code," Radhakrishnan said.

The arrests came after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayram called for criminal action against the school management, saying it had not adhered to basic fire safety standards.

Radhakrishnan said 75 children died on the spot while 13 others died of injuries in hospital, bringing the death toll to 88. The dead totalled 43 girls and 45 boys. Three bodies had not been identified.

Authorities said the fire was believed to have started in the school kitchen where cooks were preparing lunch for hundreds of children. Some officials had also said it might have been sparked by an electrical short circuit and an investigation was under way.

Funerals for most of the children were expected to be held yesterday, but some were performed late Friday in Kumbakonam, 350km from Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu.

"Some of the parents needed strong sedatives. They went into shock when they saw the horribly charred bodies of their little ones," said P. Kumar, a doctor at a state-run hospital which treated some victims. "Most of them also can't get away from how terrible the end must have been for their children. Now they will have to steel themselves for the last rites."

Newspapers splashed reports of the fire across their front pages yesterday showing grim pictures of the twisted remains of the children lined up for their parents to identify.

"Kitchen fire swallows school kids," the headline of the The Indian Express newspaper read.

About 20 children were still battling for their lives in hospital.

One injured boy, Ramesh, said from hospital that the fire started in the school kitchen and soon spread.

"Our five teachers fled, leaving us behind," he said, his face contorted in pain.

"My son and daughter were late for school. I forced the guard to unlock the school gate and let them enter ... They would be alive if I had not done this," said a 30-year-old grief-stricken mother who did not want to be identified.

Firefighters said the victims stood no chance of survival as the blazing thatched roof collapsed on the trapped children.

"They were surrounded by fire from all sides. They had no hope from the moment the fire started," a fireman said.

Heaps of bodies, some locked in embrace, were found in the stairwell and classrooms. Tiny shoes and charred school books littered the floor.

Rescue efforts were hampered by the school's practice of bolting the doors after the children arrived, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Reports said some of the children had tried to flee down a narrow stairway. Some suffocated in the stampede.

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