Fire swept through a private school in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Friday, killing at least 80 children, most of them girls, and injuring about 100 youngsters. The blaze raged through the building about 11 a.m. as students were sitting in their thatch-roofed classrooms, authorities said.
According to officials and witnesses, the fire broke out in the kitchen on the ground floor of the Lord Krishna school in the town of Kumbakonam, about 200 miles southwest of the southern city of Madras, during preparations for lunch, the main meal of the day.
"It is a grave tragedy. We have ordered a preliminary inquiry into the incident. There were 900 children in the school at that time," said J. Radhakrishnan, the school district administrator.
The school, with children ages 6 to 14, is on a busy street in the middle of a market area in Kumbakonam, a major rice trading center and a town known for its temples. The school had no fire safety equipment, nor an open playground space, Radhakrishnan said.
"From the initial reports, it was an accidental fire," he said to reporters in an interview broadcast on national television. "The fire started from the kitchen, and within 10 minutes, it had spread across the school and to the thatch-roofed third floor."
Firefighters tried to break through the school wall to rescue the children, officials said. They said several trapped children died on the third floor in a stampede. It took about 21/2 hours to extinguish the flames, which left smoking debris and bodies burned beyond recognition, officials said.
Television stations showed volunteers carrying the bodies of burned children as wailing parents, beating their chests, pushed their way through the crowded, narrow street. New Delhi Television showed a woman being led away by relatives as she wailed, "I sent my child to school to die."
"They were small children sitting in their classroom when the burning thatched roof fell on them," said Dayanidhi Maran, a member of the state parliament and a minister in the national government. "What made it worse was that the school had only one small exit."
"The children just could not escape and were charred to death. It is heart-rending," Maran said.
In Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed shock at the tragedy and offered condolences to the families whose children perished. The state government said the families would receive government indemnity payments.
Police said they arrested the principal of the school, charging him with negligence leading to death, according to the Associated Press. "As soon as the fire started, the teachers had escaped, leaving the children behind," one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. Four state education officials were suspended, officials said.
Savita Naqvi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in New Delhi, said many schools in villages and small towns lack basic safety infrastructure and are extremely vulnerable to accidents.
"We are talking about making primary education available to everybody and making it a fundamental right," she said. "But with such meager resources, often a school means merely a thatched roof hut, a narrow building with no open space and no safety norms, or just an open-air school under a tree. Our children are very vulnerable."
After a fire in January in which 50 people died at a wedding hall, the state government in Tamil Nadu ordered that all public buildings have fire alarms and sprinkler systems. But officials said the Lord Krishna school lacked such a system.
Officials also said the town lacked a fully equipped hospital that could treat burn victims, so doctors from nearby towns had to be rushed in to help.