Gandhi pledges aid to victims of school fire tragedy

INDIAN political leader Sonia Gandhi yesterday visited the site of a school fire that killed around 90 children and pledged €177,000 in aid.

Meanwhile, hundreds of schools across the nation remained closed in response to the disaster.

The authorities were continuing their investigations into Friday's blaze at the private Lord Krishna Middle School in Tamil Nadu, which was apparently sparked by dry coconut leaves used as firewood in a makeshift kitchen.

"Nine children are recovering well. They will be OK," government administrator J Radhakrishnan said. One child remains in critical condition.

The 10 remained in hospital, while about 90 others who were injured have been released. About 90 children died in the fire.

Police investigators were at the site yesterday, measuring walls, burned bamboo poles, the floor and even some of the furniture, apparently to check if the school had followed government guidelines.

Each of the school's long, narrow and windowless classrooms had only one exit. The flames jumped quickly to the building's thatched roof, and many children couldn't escape.

The police have arrested five school officials: the principal, his wife and daughter - who helped run the school - and two kitchen workers. All were being held on negligence charges.

The school in Kumbakonam was one of thousands of similar private operations across India.

They often use small, cramped rooms and cater to poor Indian families, charging less than e10 a month. The schools often flout government guidelines.

Such schools have mushroomed as the cash-strapped government cut education spending and stopped building new schools. Many are located in crowded buildings without basic safety measures such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems.

Indian courts are now ordering bigger schools to admit a certain percentage of underprivileged students each year, even if they can't pay the high fees that average about €80 a month.

State-run schools, while often better equipped than their private counterparts, can be difficult to reach.

Almost all of the children at Lord Krishna Middle School came from poor families. The grieving parents included labourers, shopkeepers and low-paid government employees.

"I have lost everything I had," said Simon Anthony Dass, a porter who lost both his sons, ages 9 and 15.

Mr Dass had never been to school and had hoped his children would have a brighter future.

He said witnesses told him the older son, Aravind, had initially escaped, but returned to the burning building to rescue his younger brother.

By Friday evening, 45 bodies had been cremated in mass ceremonies. The remaining victims were cremated on Saturday.

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