The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Last wish: Save friends

Kumbakonam, July 17: Wails of mothers and fathers rose above Kumbakonam today. So did the tales of children who did not live to tell them.

One father dropped a bar of chocolate into the grave of his eight-year-old son, Praveen — one of the 90 children who were charred or suffocated to death in a fire that started in the school kitchen.

Parents carried the bodies in a thuli (cloth cradle) and did not care about the last rites. “When the fire has swallowed my daughter, why should I bother about rites. She is gone,” said a coolie, Raju, who lost his eight-year-old.

As 10-year-old Monica’s body was lowered into a grave, her father sank to the ground in grief. A family friend said the girl had escaped the fire only to go back into the building to try to retrieve her books. “She was scared that her parents would scold her for losing the books.”

Several families preferred to bury the dead, not cremate them. “Some parents are saying that they cannot bear to put these burnt bodies into the fire again,” said mourner S. Kumar.

Almost everyone — from coolies and rickshaw-pullers to doctors — tried to help save the children. But they were hit by the “last mile problem”. The government hospital has only one ambulance, which broke down often. It also took time for saline bottles to arrive from Thanjavur.

Politicians are making a beeline to the town. Quick to send Rahul, Sonia Gandhi will be here tomorrow.

People of the state had lent them “emotional support” when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, Rahul said. “Now I am here to give the people of Tamil Nadu our emotional support.”

Eighty-eight bodies have been handed over to parents. The dead include 46 boys and 44 girls.

The children were trapped in six classrooms on the first floor as the burning thatched roof collapsed on a grille gate that opened into a passage leading to the staircase. A watchman had slammed shut a sliding door opposite the grille gate that also led to the staircase, making the narrow passage the only exit for 193 children of Classes III to V.

Anger erupted over the renewal of the school’s licence as late as on January 6, although it was clearly a fire trap. “They killed my son who wanted to stand first in the state,” cried Manjula. Her daughter Rajeshwari, a Class VI student, was inconsolable. She had seen Prakash’s classroom catch fire.

Amid the outpouring of grief, Bharathidasan stood out as a proud father. “My brother, Rajaguru, rushed to the school to save Tharanika. He found her battling for life and carried her out. But she asked my brother to save her friends, naming Gayathri, Priyadarshini. Within minutes, she breathed her last.”

Nine-year-old Tharanika’s uncle honoured her last wish. “I have lost my daughter, but I am proud of my daughter and my brother,” cried Bharathidasan.

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