KUMBAKONAM, India -- Flames swept through a thatch-roofed school Friday, trapping dozens of children who clawed at brick and concrete in vain to escape after many of their teachers fled. At least 84 children were killed and 22 injured.
For the burned children, big-city medical care was a five- to six-hour drive away from this southern Indian river town. Police, blaming officials at the private school for negligence, arrested the principal.
No teachers died, and a senior fire officer said it was because they abandoned the children and ran from the burning school. But the district government administrator said it was too early to know, noting that about 700 children got out alive -- probably helped by teachers.
More than 30 children survived with burn injuries, but many of them died awaiting treatment in the local government hospital, screaming in pain or lying unconscious in an emergency ward.
Doctors applied ointment to scalded bodies. Nurses placed large banana leaves -- believed to be soothing -- on the children's wounds. Parents, many crying, waved bamboo and plastic fans despite the air conditioning to cool inflamed skin. Hundreds more adults waited outside.
The fire started in a kitchen and jumped across the flammable roofs of the three-story school in Kumbakonam, a temple town in a fertile rice farming delta about 200 miles southwest of the southern city of Madras.
The Lord Krishna Middle School, with students between 6 and 13, had just resumed classes in early July after recess during May and June, India's hottest months.
J. Radhakrishnan, the school district administrator, said the fire erupted at 11 a.m. when the building was packed with 800 students in rooms shared by up to six classes at a time.
Local television showed dozens of small, blackened bodies with skeletal limbs laid out on the floor inside a large hall. They were burned beyond recognition, their clothes seared off flaking skin.
"As far as we can make out, the fire started in the kitchen of the school on the ground floor," Radhakrishnan said. "The sparks flying up would have set fire to the thatched roof on the first floor."
By Friday evening, 45 bodies had been cremated in mass ceremonies, he said. Several bodies were taken for cremations to villages nearby, where many children came from. The official lowered the number of wounded from 100 to 22, apparently because some children had only minor injuries.
The tragedy exposed the downside of India's "economic reforms" program, which saw a proliferation of ill-equipped private schools as the government cut spending on education to curtail its budget deficit.
Most private schools are in crowded buildings that often lack basic safety measures such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems. They rarely have playgrounds, athletic fields or open space.
At the Lord Krishna Middle School, the long, narrow, windowless classrooms each had only one exit. On the third floor, the main hall was crowded with students studying because of lack of classroom space.
The fire brought down the roof of bamboo logs and coconut leaves onto the children trapped inside. A reporter for New Delhi Television News described marks on the walls that she said showed the children tried to tear through the bricks and concrete in their desperation.
Afterward, hundreds of small wooden stools lay toppled on the blackened floor, strewn with rubber slippers, shoes, schoolbags, notebooks, lunch boxes and clothes.
Six blackboards bore traces of the lessons the children were learning. "Fill in the blanks," was written in chalk on one blackboard, asking the students to complete the spellings of words in the local Tamil language.
Police said they had arrested the principal, Pulavar Palanichamy, and intended to charge him with negligence leading to death. Four education department officials were suspended.
"This is entirely due to criminal negligence on the part of the school management and the district school authorities," said J. Jayalalithaa, head of government in Tamil Nadu state, where the fire occurred.
Residents started dousing the flames and trying to rescue children before firefighters arrived, a senior fire department official said. Those efforts were apparently hampered by the school's narrow, steep stairs and few exits. The crowd of volunteer rescuers ended up blocking the main door as they tried to help.
"As soon as the fire started, the teachers had escaped, leaving the children behind," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was the local people who saved at least 80 children from the third floor before the roof came down."
M.B. Venkatesh, who lives nearby, said some children were killed in the stampede to escape. He said teachers had left after opening the front door, usually locked as is the custom of Indian schools to keep young children inside.
Radhakrishnan, the district's highest government official, said it might be premature to blame teachers, though police were investigating their role.
"As of now, it might be far-fetched to say that teachers escaped without protecting the children," he said. "After all, they escaped along with 700-odd children. That means they protected many children."