IMAGE: Mourning in India
Arko Datta  /  REUTERS
A woman cries Saturday at the graveside of a girl who was killed in a school fire in Kumbakonam, India, 200 miles southwest of Madras, a day earlier.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/17/2004 1:52:02 PM ET 2004-07-17T17:52:02

Parents broke down in tears as the bodies of their children were buried or cremated on Saturday after a fire in an Indian school killed at least 88 children.

"He is gone, he is gone forever," wailed Vijaya as she said farewell to her 8-year-old son Vadivelu, who died of his burns in hospital on Friday. "I had prepared his afternoon meal for him, but he will never eat it."

At least 15 people gathered outside her house to console Vijaya and her husband Sekhar, a manual laborer. The scene was repeated in dozens of locations across the little town of Kumbakonam, which lies in a fertile district known as the rice bowl of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

More than 30 children survived with burn injuries, but many of them died awaiting treatment in the local government hospital, screaming in pain or lying unconscious in an emergency ward.

The death toll rose to 88 as four more children succumbed to burn injuries at a government hospital overnight, senior district official J. 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 to The AP on condition of anonymity.

The number of wounded was lowered from 100 to 22, apparently because some children had only minor injuries, Radhakrishnan said.

No teachers died, and a senior fire officer said it was because they abandoned the children and ran from the burning school. But the district government administrator said it was too early to know, noting that about 700 children got out alive — probably helped by teachers.

Five arrested; investigation launched
Five people, including the school principal and the cook, were arrested, senior district official J. Radhakrishnan told reporters.

Video: Blame apportioned

The blaze began in a kitchen where Friday's lunch was being prepared before spreading to the school's palm-thatched roof.

Many of the children were trapped in a large classroom which had only one exit, dying after the blazing roof collapsed on top of them and blocked their way out.

Others died of suffocation as they tried to escape down the narrow staircases.

"The kids were too small to break down the wall or think of any way out," said Balu, a 35-year-old father of two, whose children were being taught on another floor and escaped unhurt.

"The government is to blame as there has been no inspection of this school for at least two to three years. If someone had inspected the facilities, maybe they might have pointed it out to the school management, and this might have been avoided."

Newspapers criticized the lack of adequate exits and fire extinguishers as well as the fact cooking was being carried out under a thatched roof.

The papers also turned on the teachers, none of whom were killed, for leaving the building while some of their charges were still inside.

“As soon as the fire started, the teachers had escaped, leaving the children behind,” an 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.”

Radhakrishnan, the district’s highest government official, said it might be premature to blame teachers, though police were investigating their role.

“As of now, it might be far-fetched to say that teachers escaped without protecting the children,” he said. “After all, they escaped along with 700-odd children. That means they protected many children.”

Government compensation, visits
The state government gave 100,000 rupees ($2,175) in compensation to the parents of each victim. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an investigation.

"Children are the most precious asset of our nation and the loss of so many innocent lives is a matter of deepest sorrow," he said. Ruling party politician Rahul Gandhi visited the hospital and spoke to distraught parents on Saturday while his mother, party leader Sonia Gandhi, was expected on Sunday.

The Perumandi cremation and burial ground in the town stayed open overnight as attendants buried or burned the bodies of dozens of children killed in the blaze.

"At least 30 of the bodies that have come here were in the 5-10 year age group," said burial ground owner Subramanian. "The parents are rushing through the last rites as they cannot bear to look at the charred bodies any more."

Girl went back for her books
As 10-year-old Monica's body was lowered into a grave, next to at least a dozen other freshly dug ones, her father slipped to the ground in grief. A mourner said the girl had escaped the fire only to go back into the building to try to retrieve her books.

"She was scared that her parents would scold her for losing the books," he said.

A short distance away in a compound adjacent to the burial ground were 15 piles of smoldering ashes, the remains of cremated children. Four piles of firewood were stacked nearby in preparation for more corpses.

"Some of the parents are so shocked that they do not know what they are doing or saying," said mourner S. Kumar, a 49-year old scrap metal dealer.

"Hindus who would normally burn the bodies of their dead relatives have buried them tonight. Some parents are saying that cannot bear to put these burnt bodies into fire again."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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