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87 children die in school fire

By G. Srinivasan



DEATHLY ARRAY: Bodies of the children at the Government Hospital. Kumbakonam, as parents and others seek to identify them. - AP

KUMBAKONAM, JULY 16. In a horrifying tragedy that shocked the nation, 87 schoolchildren were burnt to death and 23 seriously injured today as fire raged through a primary school in Kumbakonam town of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.

While 75 children in the nursery section of the Saraswathi English Medium School were burnt to death in their classroom as the thatched roof caught fire and fell on them, 12 others who were seriously injured died after being admitted to the Kumbakonam General Hospital. Twentythree children are being treated in the hospital, and a few of them are in a critical condition, officials say. Ranjith Kumar, a mason, who tried to rescue the trapped children and suffered serious burns, died in hospital.

The fire, which started around 10.40 a.m., raged for an hour. Fire-fighting and rescue operations were hampered by a lack of access to the three-storey school building — located between two residential buildings — and with only one entrance and a single flight of stairs. It is said that the thatch over the kitchen — where the noon meal was being prepared — caught fire when a spark from the burning firewood fell on it. The blaze then spread to the thatched roof of the classroom on the first floor. However, the high school students of the Sri Krishna Aided School (located in the same building) escaped as they were on the ground floor and in a section of the first floor that had a `pucca' roof.

Firefighters, who were alerted at 11 a.m., had to break the concrete structure to reach the children. By the time they contained the fire, the bodies were burnt beyond recognition.

Surya, a seventh standard student who escaped, said that a teacher told them of the fire and asked them to run. She could get out as her classroom was on the ground floor; however many children who went back to take their books and water bottles fell victim to the fire.

While the total strength of the school is 870 (in both the primary and high school sections), 193 children were believed to have been in the classrooms that caught fire. Of them, 87 have died.

As news of the fire spread, hundreds of parents rushed to the school, desperate to rescue their wards. Most of the children, both girls and boys, are from the Palakarai area of Kumbakonam. The school presented a pathetic picture — burnt books and blackboards and schoolbags and tiffin boxes scattered all over the classrooms. In the hospital, shocked and dazed parents thronged the mortuary to identify their children and their cries filled the air. Pulavar Palanisamy, Correspondent of Sri Krishna Aided School, has been arrested.

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