10 guilty in India school fire that killed 94 children

30 Jul 2014

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In this July 16, 2004 file photo, Indian police officers inspect the burnt remains of the school building in Kumbakonam, southwest of Chennai. — AP
In this July 16, 2004 file photo, Indian police officers inspect the burnt remains of the school building in Kumbakonam, southwest of Chennai. — AP

NEW DELHI: An Indian court convicted 10 people on Wednesday in a 2004 fire that tore through a thatched-roof schoolhouse, killing 94 children in a horrifying case that focused attention on poor fire regulations in the country.

The owner of the primary school, his wife, the headmistress and the meal planner were among those convicted of culpable homicide and endangerment, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

Sentencing was set for later Wednesday.

The Thanjavur district court in Tamil Nadu state acquitted 11 other defendants.

The case drew attention to the numerous ill-equipped private schools in India, many lacking basic safety measures such as fire alarms and sprinklers. State investigators said the school had no firefighting equipment and poor exit facilities.

One of the surviving students, Madhumita, blamed “the carelessness of the teachers” for the deaths in Kumbakonam, a temple town about 320 kilometres southwest of Tamil Nadu's state capital, Chennai.

“If they had considered the children as their own children, they would have saved us,” Madhumita, whose sister died in the fire, told Indian media. She gave only one name.

“But they acted selfishly. “

None of the teachers died in the fire.

The blaze started in the school's kitchen, where lunch was being prepared on a log fire. The flames spread swiftly through the three-story building, trapping hundreds of children. Primary schools in India typically teach students aged 4-10. Many of the children were burned beyond recognition as the fire brought down the roof of bamboo logs and coconut leaves. Others were suffocated by black smoke or trampled as panicked students tried to tear through the brick and concrete walls. Almost all the victims were from poor families of laborers, shopkeepers and low-paid government employees.

With India's court system backlogged, the trial began only in 2012 and included testimony from hundreds of people including survivors and parents of those killed.

According to a 2005 report by a state investigating committee, the school had brought in students from two other schools to show inspectors that classrooms were filled with more than 700 children under its care. Investigators also said the school's employees had no training in disaster management.