, NEW DELHI, July 30 – A court in India on Wednesday sentenced a headmistress and nine others to jail over a school fire that killed 94 children a decade ago, in the first convictions surrounding the tragedy.
In a packed court, the judge found the 10 guilty for a range of offences over the blaze that swept through the private primary school in 2004 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The founder of the school was sentenced to life in prison, while the headmistress and other officials were handed various jail terms as well as fines, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported.
Prosecutor R. Madhusudhanan said another 11 people were also acquitted over the blaze in the small town of Kumbakonam after all were charged with culpable homicide, gross negligence and other offences.
“We will appeal before the high court,” Madhusudhanan told NDTV of the acquittals.
The fire started in the thatched-roofed school’s kitchen where lunch was being prepared before spreading quickly to other rooms and floors.
Angry parents and firefighters at the time accused teachers of deserting the children in a rush to save their own lives.
Many of the children killed were trapped in a large classroom which had only one exit. They died after the blazing roof collapsed on top of them, reports have said. Another 18 children suffered serious burns.
Parents of the children killed, who were mostly aged between seven and 12, gathered outside the packed court in the town of Thanjavur for Wednesday’s judgements, PTI said.
One relative said most of the families were disappointed with the verdict which they had been waiting so long for.
“Now we are pained more as those who were accused of killing the children have been let off. All should have been punished,” the unnamed relative told PTI.
The Saraswati Primary School came under severe scrutiny for poor safety standards including a lack of exits and fire-fighting equipment.
Fires at India’s overcrowded and dilapidated schools occur frequently, with safety regulations routinely flaunted.
The fire was India’s worst disaster involving children since December 1995 when 178 school children were among 578 people who died in a blaze that engulfed a community tent during a festival in northern Haryana state.