| Relatives carry the body of a child to a burial ground in Kumbakonam on Saturday. (AFP)
Kumbakonam, July 17: Maria Angeline must be the loneliest teacher here.
Three others who should have been with her have gone missing, lending ammunition to those who accuse the teachers of “fleeing” instead of saving the children from the flames.
Angeline sat unperturbed at the local police station, where she had been called this morning for questioning.
The middle-aged Angeline was one of the four teachers who were in the thatched-roof classrooms of the school when the fire broke out yesterday. “We did not leave the classrooms, as members of the public allege,” Angeline said. “I was the first one to bring out as many students as possible.”
Twenty-three teachers were said to be present when the blaze struck. Kumbakonam police have begun investigations by shortlisting four. But apart from Angeline, the three others — two of them have been identified as Anthony Ammal and Sri Devi — are missing.
Ammal’s house was locked. Neighbours said she had possibly taken refuge at her mother’s place in another part of the town with her two children.
Angeline, who teaches in Class V, said she did everything she could, but some of her colleagues let her down. “Nobody from downstairs told us about the fire. If the kitchen people had warned us, it would have been easier to save everyone. The teachers from the lower floor ran away without telling us.”
“By then,” she recalled, “children in the kindergarten classes in the ground floor had been evacuated and there was a communication gap in that confusion.”
“Suddenly there was smoke all around. I called out to the kids ‘Run out, run out’ and I began dragging some of them out with me. There was a big rush towards the staircase. I stumbled and fell, and some of the kids stumbled over me and I suffered a hairline fracture in my leg.”
Several residents in the neighbourhood insisted that the teachers could have played a “more responsible role”.
But Ravichandran, who lives opposite the school, said the teachers did what they could. The thatched roof burnt so quickly it was difficult to save everyone.
“It is not fair to blame the teachers. I saw some of them trying to pull kids away from the building.”
Thanjavur district collector J.S. Radhakrishnan said Palanichamy, the correspondent of the government-aided but privately managed school, his wife Saraswathy, who is part of the management committee, and Shantha Lakshmi, the headmistress, have been arrested.
The noon-meal organiser, Vijayalakshmi, and an ayah, Vasanthi, have also been held. Last night, a mob had stormed Palanichamy’s house, demanding his arrest.