Kumbakonam, July 16: The fire of sustenance turned into a mass pyre for children between the ages of seven and nine with at least 86 getting charred to death, trapped in their blazing thatched-roof classrooms.
Unofficial estimates put the number of dead at over 100 in the fire that started in a kitchen on the ground floor when the mid-day meal for children was being cooked, witnesses said.
The resident medical officer at the government hospital here placed the toll late tonight at 86. He said 108 children with severe burn injuries had been brought to the hospital, but most were already dead. Many had died of asphyxiation.
Thirty-five others were taken to a hospital in Thanjavur.
Located on the narrow Kasiraman Street, Saraswati English Medium School does not appear from the outside to have proper ventilation. The school building consists of two blocks joined together. The first has four storeys where high-school classes are held. In the smaller adjoining block, above the first floor, primary classes were going on under a thatched roof where the kitchen fire quickly spread, helped by a strong wind.
Local residents said around 11.30 am, they saw thick columns of smoke billowing out of the building and heard cries of children. Reports of how the children got trapped inside differed.
Some said the door to the second-floor classrooms had got locked from outside as the watchman fled. In any case, the staircase leading down was so narrow most kids could not escape.
Burnt schoolbags and open lunch boxes littered the staircase. In one part of the school, tiny blaze-blackened bodies covered the floor — two, three piled on top of each other.
Sobbing parents gathered at the hospital where the names of the dead were being read out. A middle-aged woman came running towards the casualty ward, crying: “Have you seen my girl'”
She would have collapsed had accompanying relatives not held her steady.
From amid the litter of charred children’s bodies one horrifying truth struck out — witnesses said the teachers had fled on noticing the fire.
A former armyman at the site said: “Even hens have an instinct to preserve their chicks, but not these teachers.”
| Fathers hold their injured children. (AFP)
Only one teacher had been admitted to hospital. Late at night the person who ran the private aided school was arrested.
The Tamil Nadu government suspended four education department officials, including the chief education officer of Thanjavur district.
An official at the spot said had it not been for the quick response by the fire and rescue service staff, who arrived within 15-20 minutes, the toll would have been much higher. At the time of the fire, 193 children were in the primary classrooms.
A 30-year-old woman said between sobs that she had lost her son and daughter. The children were late for school and were allowed in by the guard at the gate after much pleading by her.
A group of children who had clasped their hands tight in fright were seen charred to death in that posture, the former armyman said. Although witnesses said at least 200 bodies had been removed from the school, officials would only confirm that 108 were admitted to the hospital. There were children who had managed to come out and were still missing.
Kumbakonam this evening was a town of wailing mothers accompanying their husbands who carried dead children wrapped in a thuli (a white cloth hung from a pole, resembling a makeshift cradle) on their shoulders for cremation across the Cauvery.
Known for producing the mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujam, this temple town tonight had only its dead to count.