Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Survivors of school fire in India battle for their lives


Doctors yesterday battled to save the lives of survivors from a devastating fire in a school in southern India that killed 90 children.

Nearly 20 children are still in hospital, some with severe burn injuries, in the little town of Kumbakonam that has been shrouded in a pall of gloom since Friday's blaze.

"I had two hands. God has saved one, but I have lost the other," cried a mother whose 8-year-old daughter, Suzy Mary, survived, though her 10-year-old son died in the fire.

Some children in a nearby government hospital had suffered 30 to 50 percent burns, and one of them was running a fever, senior district official J. Radhakrishnan told reporters.

Dozens of people marched silently through the town late on Saturday to demonstrate sympathy for the victims' families and to press the state government to act against schools operating from makeshift premises.

They placed garlands and floral wreaths next to the entrance of the burnt shell of the Sri Krishna School while black flags hung from its blackened walls.

Some walls had gaping holes, made by children trying to escape the fire and by fire officials trying to save them.

Officials said about 700 children in the school at the time had managed to escape.

Angry residents and relatives turned on the teachers at the school, accusing them of having left the building and leaving some of their charges behind.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, visited the town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and met the families of some victims.

"Loss of life is always a heart-breaking experience for the near and dear ones, but when it deals with the lives of children it is even more heart-breaking, even more tragic. We have to draw lessons from this tragedy," Gandhi told reporters.

Gandhi said the government had sanctioned a total of 10 million rupees (US$217,700) in aid for the families of the victims and 5 million rupees to set up a fire safety project near Kumbakonam.

The blaze began in a kitchen where lunch was being cooked, and then spread to the school's palm-thatched roof.

Many children were trapped in a large classroom with just one exit, and died after the blazing roof collapsed on top of them to block their way out.

Others were suffocated and died as they tried to run down narrow staircases.

The state government has since ordered all schools in the state operating in makeshift structures, including those with thatched roofs, to shut down, newspapers and television channels reported.

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