Teachers accused of abandoning students in India fire

Friday, July 16th 2004, 6:14 am
By: News On 6

KUMBAKONAM, India (AP) _ 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 aged 6-13. Some were in rooms shared by up to six classes at a time.

The fire broke out about 11 a.m. in the kitchen and jumped across the thatched roofs of the three-story school in Kumbakonam, about 200 miles southwest of the southern city of Madras.

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. 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.

Selvam, who uses only one name, cried inconsolably on Saturday as he was unable to find his eight-year-old son studying at the school even 24 hours after the disaster.

Afterward, hundreds of small wooden stools lay toppled on the blackened floor, strewn with rubber slippers, shoes, schoolbags, notebooks, lunch boxes and clothes.

Six blackboards bore traces of the lessons the children were learning. ``Fill in the blanks,'' was written in chalk on one blackboard, asking the students to complete the spellings of words in the local Tamil language.

Police locked the school building as they began investigating the cause of the fire.

The tragedy exposed the downside of India's ``economic reforms'' program, which saw a proliferation of ill-equipped private schools as the government cut spending on education to curtail its budget deficit.

Most private schools are in crowded buildings that often lack basic safety measures such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems. They rarely have playgrounds, athletic fields or open space.

The principal was arrested, along with his wife and daughter, who helped run the school. Four education department officials were suspended.

Two kitchen workers who were preparing lunch were also arrested and police said they intended to charge the five with criminal negligence.

``This is entirely due to criminal negligence on the part of the school management and the district school authorities,'' said J. Jayalalithaa, head of government in Tamil Nadu state, where the fire occurred.

The death toll rose to 88 as four more children succumbed to burn injuries at a government hospital overnight, Radhakrishnan told The Associated Press on Saturday.

However, a police officer at a government hospital where the injured were being treated said at least of 90 children had died. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

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 told AP, 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.

Many local residents, however, drew their own conclusions as shock and disbelief gave way to anger.

``This was sheer murder,'' said M. A. Kumar, 35, a street sweeper.

The poor facilities are unacceptable, said

R. Swaminathan, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, said the conditions were unacceptable. ``These private schools take a lot of money from parents in the name of building facilities.''

In the wake of Friday's fire, the state government has ordered inspection of all schools for compliance of safety norms, Radhakrishnan said.