Insecticide was in the food or cooking oil used to make a school meal that led to the deaths of at least 23 children in India, post-mortem results showed Thursday, amid reports that many victims suffered deadly convulsions and smelled of poison.
Children began to fall ill within minutes of eating the free dish, a cook told Reuters from her hospital bed in Patna in the north-eastern state of Bihar.
Death came so quickly for some that they died in their parents' arms while being taken to hospital.
The school, in Mashrakh village in the district of Chapra, provided free meals under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world's largest school feeding program involving 120 million children.
The state government has offered grieving parents $3,350 in compensation, according to an ITV News report.
Investigators have seized a plastic container used to store the cooking oil, according to local media reports.
Post-mortem results indicate insecticide was either in the original ingredients or the oil used to cook them, Patna Medical College Hospital superintendent Amarkant Jha Amar told the Associated Press Thursday.
He said the results of chemical analysis of the ingredients seized from the school were still pending.
Calls to the hospital were unanswered Thursday.
The post-mortem appeared to confirmed earlier suspicions that the children had been poisoned by organophosphorus compounds used as pesticides.
"The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odor of organophosphorous," said Vinod Mishra, another doctor at Patna Medical College Hospital told Reuters.
"It seemed as though it was coming out of their pores.”
At least 23 children, aged four to 12, died after vomiting and convulsing from agonizing stomach cramps after eating the meal on Tuesday, Reuters said. Another local official told Reuters 25 children had died, but the toll could not be confirmed.
Police were searching Thursday for the principal of the school, who has disappeared. Local media said school’s food was supplied by her husband, who runs a store in the village. Residents said nobody else had reported getting sick from the same ingredients.
Reuters said the meal was a potato curry and rice, while local reports said it was rice with soyabeans and lentils.
School cook Manju Devi, whose own three children were reportedly among those sickened, told Reuters she had almost immediately fallen ill after eating the lunch.
When asked if she had prepared it, her mother quickly intervened, saying, "No! She had nothing to do with the meal that day, another cook had made the meal that day. She wasn't a part of it."
Police said there were many different versions of what happened at the school. "We have made no arrests so far as we are waiting for forensic reports which will help us piece together the entire investigation," Sujit Kumar, superintendent of police in Chapra, told Reuters.
"We have circumstantial evidence but the key to the investigation is the headmistress who is absconding," he said, adding that police were trying to find her.
P.K. Shahi, Bihar's education minister, said on Wednesday that the headmistress had been dismissed over the incident, although she has not yet given an account of what happened.
"In spite of the cook's complaint (over the smell of cooking oil used for the food), the headmistress insisted on its use and the cook made the food. The children had also complained about the food to the cook," Shahi said.
Protesters angered by the deaths threw stones at a police station and set ablaze vehicles Wednesday.
Meanwhile, thousands of schoolchildren refused to eat their free school meals Thursday, according to an Agence France Presse report.
The director of the midday meal scheme in Bihar, who gave his name only as Lakshmanan, told AFP: "Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school. Some of the students dumped the lunch in school dustbins and we are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not be repeated."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.