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TN tragedy toll 90; five held

A worker waters the grave of a 10-year-old girl
A worker waters the grave of a 10-year-old girl, Monica, after her burial in Kumbakonam. — Reuters photo

Kumbakonam, July 17
While the death toll in Friday’s devastating fire at the local school here rose to 90, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi visited this small town in Tamil Nadu to express emotional support to the families of the victims.

Just before leaving for New Delhi, Rahul told mediapersons, “When I lost a family member in Tamil Nadu (meaning Rajiv Gandhi who was killed in 1991 by a suicide bomber), the people of this state gave us a lot of support. Now that Tamil Nadu has lost its children, I have come to give back the same emotional support. My mother too will come tomorrow.”

Earlier, Rahul who flew in a helicopter from Chennai and accompanied by the Union Minister of State for Petroleum and local MP, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyer, visited the hospital and spoke to the 11 children admitted in the burn ward.

He also visited Lord Sri Krishna Secondary School and homes of three victims in this town, which has a population of 1,00,000 persons.

Among the 90 bodies of children, all have been identified but there was a dispute over one body, the Thanjavur District Collector, Dr J. Radhakrishnan, said here today.

Dr V. Jayaraman, a plastic surgeon from Kilpauk Medical College, Chennai, who is overseeing the treatment at the hospital here said, “Out of the 20 children with burn injuries, eight were shifted to Thanjavur as their condition was critical. At present one child is critical and intravenous fluid was being given to her. The condition of the remaining 11 was better and all of them will survive.”

He said among the dead children were 46 boys and 44 girls. All have been buried in a burial ground on the outskirts of the town.

On-the-spot investigation inside the partially gutted school building revealed that all kinds of safety norms and rules of the Education Department for Schools had been flouted.

During the fire mishap, there were 120 children in three classrooms housed in a temporary structure with a huge thatched roof on the first floor of the school building.

When the fire started in the kitchen on the ground floor at the rear of the building around 10.30 am, the cooks jumped the wall and fled. They were cooking a mid-day meal under a scheme popular in Tamil Nadu.

The fire immediately spread to the kitchen roof and blazed high.

The teachers in order to prevent the 120 children in the three classrooms from venturing out and run down the rear stairs which led to the blazing kitchen locked the only collapsible gate of the temporary structure.

The kitchen fire rose so high that the thatched roof of these classrooms caught fire and the blazing roof supported by bamboo poles gave away. It collapsed on the children and most of them died on the spot.

When the fire started there were 240 children in the building.

While the roof was collapsing and the trapped children screaming for help, the teachers and other students fled down the narrow front staircase, resulting in a stampede and more injuries.

The main gate of the school could not be opened as the watchman had locked it and gone out for a cup of tea. It was only when the fire fighters reached the spot and broke open the front gate that the children who had rushed downstairs could come out.

The ventilation of the entire building was extremely bad with only cement-perforated windows. It took time for the fire fighters on a crane to break these and rescue the few children they could with severe burn injuries.

As forensic experts today rummaged through the gutted ruins, one could see the entire building strewn with schoolbags, small shoes and slippers and what was most heart rending was tiffin boxes with uneaten food. One could hear from the adjacent building the wails of Manjula who had lost her nine-year-old son Prakash.

“I could hear the screams. My daughter Radha escaped and other son Raj had not gone to school. It is impossible to forget the screams of so many children together,” she said as the entire family mourned with so many others here.

While many children were lucky to escape, there were some who lost their lives trying to save others from the inferno.

When the teachers were scampering to safety leaving the children to be roasted alive, 15-year-old Aravinda, who managed to escape, went back to the first floor to fetch his nine-year-old brother Aneesh and both died.

Simon Antonidass, father of the two children lamented, “I came to know about this from Aravinda’s classmates and now I have lost both sons”, but added, “I am proud of him. At least when adults were running for their lives leaving the children to die, my son showed valour.”

Though hundreds of people from adjoining villages flocked to the tragedy spot even today, there was a large crowd at the hospital mostly family members of those injured, sitting in the sun waiting to hear the condition of their loved ones.

Since people with burn injuries die because of infections, the doctor were not allowing them to enter the air-conditioned burn ward.

In fact, the visit by politicians, including the Union Health Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, preceding the visit by Mr Rahul Gandhi and Mr Aiyer, created a lot of inconvenience for the already over-strained district administration.

The local people were peeved at Mr Aiyer since he was the local MP but it took him 28 hours to reach this town.

The district administration has arrested the school owner, Palavar Palanichamy, his wife P.Saraswati, who was also a management committee member, their daughter, Santhaswami, who was the headmistress, the mid-day meal organiser, Vijayalaxmi, and the attendant, Vasanthi.

They have been charged with causing death by rash and negligent acts. However, the teachers have been kept away from public as many are baying for their blood.Back

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