KUMBAKONAM, India – Government officials accused teachers of abandoning students to a fire that turned a crowded, ill-equipped elementary school in southern India into a deathtrap for at least 88 children.
None of the 23 teachers died in the Friday blaze at the private Lord Krishna School, which was packed with about 800 students ages 6 to 13. Some were in rooms shared by up to six classes at a time.
Police arrested five school officials: the principal; his wife, who is part of the school’s management; his daughter, who helped run the school; and two kitchen workers. They were being held on negligence charges.
The fire Friday was sparked by dry coconut leaves used as firewood at a makeshift kitchen, which prepared free food subsidized by the government. The blaze jumped across the thatched roofs of the three-story school.
Residents started dousing the flames and trying to rescue children. Those efforts were apparently hampered by the school’s narrow, steep stairs and few exits. The crowd of volunteer rescuers ended up blocking the main door as they tried to help.
The fire brought down the roof of bamboo logs and coconut leaves onto the children trapped inside. A reporter for New Delhi Television News described marks on the walls that she said showed the children tried to tear through the bricks and concrete in their desperation.
By Friday evening, 45 of the dead had been cremated as is the custom in much of India. The rest were cremated Saturday.
Official lowered the number of injured – earlier put at more than 100 – to 22. Eleven of the injured were hospitalized, one in critical condition.
Doctors applied ointment to scalded bodies. Nurses placed large banana leaves – believed to be soothing – on the children’s wounds. Parents, many crying, waved bamboo and plastic fans despite the air conditioning to cool inflamed skin. Hundreds more adults waited outside.
Police locked the school building as they began investigating the cause of the fire.
No teachers died and a senior fire officer said it was because they abandoned the children and ran from the burning school.
“As soon as the fire started, the teachers had escaped, leaving the children behind,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was the local people who saved at least 80 children from the third floor before the roof came down.”
But the district government administrator said it was too early to know, noting that about 700 children got out alive – probably helped by teachers.
Almost all of the children at Lord Krishna Middle School came from poor families, and the grieving parents included menial laborers, shopkeepers, low-paid government servants and villagers.
“I have lost everything I had,” said Simon Anthony Dass, a porter, who lost both his sons – 15-year-old Aravind and nine-year-old Anish Kumar. Dass had never been to school, and had hoped his children would have a brighter future.
He said witnesses told him Aravind had initially escaped, but returned to the burning building to rescue his younger brother. Both died.
Girls light candles Saturday at a memorial in Kumbakonam, India, for the children who died in Friday’s school fire.