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11 let off in school fire that killed 94

Chennai, July 30: A sessions court today sentenced to life imprisonment the owner of a school at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu where a fire killed 94 children in 2004, but let off 11 of the 21 accused in a verdict that the victims described as “disappointing”.

The court pronounced Sri Krishna English Medium School founder Pulavar Palanichamy, his wife and school correspondent Saraswati, headmistress Santhanalakshmi and seven others guilty under IPC Section 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder).

Palanichamy was sentenced to life imprisonment while eight others — the correspondent, headmistress, noon meal organiser and cook and four education department officials — to 5 years rigorous imprisonment.

The engineer who issued the fitness certificate to the building was sentenced to two years RI. The court also imposed fines on all the guilty totalling Rs 52.57 lakh, which will be distributed among families of the victims and the injured.

The court acquitted three teachers and eight government officials accused in the case.

Survivors and parents of the dead students said they had expected all the accused to be held guilty. “We are disappointed by the acquittal. Had the teachers intervened, the students could have been saved. But they failed to do their duty,” said Mercy Angelin, a survivor, who said she was rescued by outsiders.

The tragedy at Kumbakonam, a temple town 350km from here, had shocked the nation. The fire had broken out at the Sri Krishna English Medium School complex on July 16, 2004, after sparks from the noon-meal kitchen somehow set aflame the thatched roof on the first floor.

The complex housed three schools — Sri Krishna Aided Private School, Saraswathi Nursery and Primary School, and Sri Krishna Girls High School — that had a total student count of over 700.

Over 200 children, aged between 5 and 13, from the primary school were having classes in the hall with the thatched roof and three adjacent halls to which the fire spread.

Many of the students —studying in KG to Class V — got trapped as the grille gates on either side of the main hall were locked.

A commission of inquiry held the management responsible, saying the building did not have adequate exits and fire-fighting equipment. Also, the teachers had not been trained to handle such emergencies. The probe also found one of the three schools had not got the approvals to function from the building.