Blaze at Indian school kills 80 children

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The Independent Online

At least 80 children were killed in a fire in a primary school in southern India yesterday. The children were trapped inside as the fire spread through the three-storey Lord Krishna school in Kumbakonam, 185 miles south of Madras, according to witnesses. Most of the dead were between 6 and 13 years old.

At least 80 children were killed in a fire in a primary school in southern India yesterday. The children were trapped inside as the fire spread through the three-storey Lord Krishna school in Kumbakonam, 185 miles south of Madras, according to witnesses. Most of the dead were between 6 and 13 years old.

Many of the children's bodies could not be identified; 20 were so badly burned it was impossible to tell if they were boys or girls, according to J Radhakrishnan, the chief administrator of the Kumbakonam district.

Others were killed in the stampede as the panicking children tried to escape the burning building. At least 100 children were injured, many of them severely.

There were differing accounts of how the fire broke out. Some reports said that it was caused by a short circuit, others that it was started by an open cooking fire in the kitchen. But all accounts appear to agree that the school was woefully unprepared for such a tragedy.

There were several hundred children inside the school when the fire started. Police were quoted as saying that children were told to stay in their classrooms while the fire was put out. Some reports said that the children were left alone in their classrooms without teachers.

The main door to the school was locked when the fire broke out, trapping the children inside, according to M B Venkatesh, a witness who lives nearby.

The building did not have fire exits, and all the children were forced to flee through the narrow main entrance. Many died trapped on the single staircase leading to the ground floor. As smoke poured from the building, hundreds of residents rushed to the building to help firemen in a desperate attempt to rescue the children, plunging into the flames to carry out the injured and dead. Some tried to smash their way into the upper floor of the building to get to the trapped children.

But, in another indication of India's woefully inadequate fire safety, water barely trickled from the hoses with which they were trying to fight the fire.

After the fire was put out, television pictures showed horrific scenes of tiny charred bodies piled three deep covering the entire floor of a large room. They were being carried out one by one, on a single stretcher.

"You will lose your mind if you see the bodies," said Rajalakshmi Subramaniam, a housewife. "Parents were crying, beating their chests and calling out for their children," said another witness, S Kalidas.

Kumbakonam, in Tamil Nadu, is famous for its temples. This is the second major fire in Tamil Nadu this year: about 50 people were killed at a fire in a wedding hall in the town of Srirangam in January.

In response to the public outcry after the January tragedy, the authorities ordered fire safety systems to be installed in public buildings. But most public buildings in India continue to have almost no fire safety at all.

Both of the versions of how yesterday's fire started are typical hazards in India. Many still cook with open fires in buildings that are constructed of wood or, like the Lord Krishna school, are partially thatched.

Indian electrical wiring is dangerous. Many buildings are not earthed. Wiring often burns out. The erratic Indian electrical supply, with frequent power surges, does not help.

There will be public fury over yesterday's tragedy, the worst of its kind in India since 1995, when around 400 died at a fire in the northern state of Haryana. There is also likely to be scrutiny of the way in which government education spending has been cut back in recent years as part of the economic reforms that have fuelled India's emergence as one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

Public spending on education is only around 3 per cent of GDP - almost half what it was 20 years ago.

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