Grieving parents are preparing for a mass burial today of at least 27 schoolchildren who died in the Philippines after eating cassava - a root that's poisonous if not prepared properly.
Another 103 people were hospitalised with severe stomach pain and diarrhoea.
The victims, mostly aged seven to 13, purchased the deep-fried caramelised cassava from vendors during snack time at the San Jose school in Mabini on Bohol island.
One of the two vendors also was taken ill, and remains in hospital while the other was in police custody to protect her from outraged parents.
Investigators were checking whether the vendors failed to properly cook the cassava, and looking into unconfirmed reports that tainted cooking oil was used to fry the food, Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said she was "deeply saddened" and went to Mabini to console grieving parents and declare an emergency for the province so that it could draw emergency funds to assist victims' families.
"I pray to God that this will never happen again," Arroyo said. "I want the police to work with the health authorities to give me a detailed report on why and how this unfortunate incident happened."
Wailing parents left hospitals late on Wednesday carrying bodies of their children wrapped in blankets, and Mabini Mayor Stephan Rances said a mass burial was planned for Thursday.
The starchy roots of the cassava plant, a major crop in Southeast Asia, are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins A, B and C. However, it is poisonous without proper preparation. Eaten raw, the human digestive system will convert part of it into cyanide.
The victims suffered severe stomach pain, then vomiting and diarrhoea.
They were taken to at least four hospitals near the school in Mabini, about 380 miles south-east of Manila. Treatment was delayed because the nearest hospital was 20 miles away.
"Some said they took only two bites because it tasted bitter and the effects were felt 5-10 minutes later," said Dr. Harold Gallego of Garcia Memorial Provincial Hospital in the town of Talibon, where 47 patients were taken.
Dayrit said 27 students were confirmed dead. The vast majority of the 103 people recovering in hospital were schoolchildren, and four of them were in critical condition, hospital workers said.
Those who had reached hospitals had a good chance of surviving, doctors said.
Officials of the National Bureau of Investigation and the Health Department were collecting samples of cassava at the site and drawing blood from patients for analysis, provincial health officer Reymoses Cabagnot said.Reuse content