Indian police charge owners as school fire toll hits 20

Indian police charge owners as school fire toll hits 20

FILE PHOTO: Fire trucks and ambulances are seen after a fire broke out in a four-story commercial b
FILE PHOTO: Fire trucks and ambulances are seen after a fire broke out in a four-story commercial building in Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, India, May 23, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

NEW DELHI: Indian police on Saturday (May 25) charged the owners of a private school after a fire killed 20 teenagers, some of whom died jumping from the building in a desperate bid to escape the flames, officials said.

Sixteen of the dead were young women who had been preparing for exams at a tuition centre illegally set up on the top of a commercial building in the western city of Surat, the officials said.

Horrifying images of the students leaping from upper floors of the building on Friday afternoon have spread on social media.

A youth died in hospital on Saturday, increasing the toll, as a provisional inquiry revealed that the school was housed in a plastic dome that was quickly engulfed in flames.

Most of the victims were aged between 15 and 19, officials said. More than 50 students were in classes when the fire erupted.

READ: At least 19 students die in India fire: Medical officer

Government officials said five of the dead had been due to receive exam results determining their university entrance on Saturday. All five had passed with flying colours, one official told AFP.

Police have charged three owners of the tuition centre at the Takshashila Arcade with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and attempted culpable homicide.

SHOCK AND GRIEF

Surat police commissioner Satish Sharma told reporters that one of the accused, Bhargav Bhutani, had been detained.

"The other accused will be arrested soon," he added, appealing to the public to remain calm and not take the law into their own hands. Media reports said the two other accused were on the run.

Widespread safety breaches have become apparent at the centre, officials said.

"The fire was caused by a short-circuit in one of the air-conditioning ducts on the ground floor ... and spread to the third floor," said Surat's fire and emergency services commissioner U Upadhyay.

The Takshashila Arcade had permission for just one floor but two additional storeys were illegally constructed on top, according to a chief fire official Basant Parekh.

"The coaching class owners had illegally occupied the terrace and had put up a makeshift dome," he added.

Surat city has set up a team to identify other illegal structures being used for tuition classes in exam season.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who comes from Gujarat state, said on Twitter: "Extremely anguished by the fire tragedy in Surat.

"My thoughts are with bereaved families. May the injured recover quickly. Have asked the Gujarat government and local authorities to provide all possible assistance to those affected."

The Gujarat government has ordered an inquiry into the incident, as well as a fire safety audit of schools, colleges, coaching centres and commercial buildings in Surat, where the fire occurred.

Some eyewitnesses and families of the victims have alleged fire officials were slow to arrive, according to Reuters partner ANI. 

Paresh Patel, whose daughter was inside the commercial complex when the fire broke out, said the fire brigade took 45 minutes to arrive. "Even though my daughter got saved, she is still in trauma," he told ANI.

Police were not immediately available to comment on Saturday.

A government official said at least 50 students were in the complex when the fire broke out. Injured victims were rushed to hospitals and the toll could rise further.

Television footage showed students desperately trying to escape by jumping off the building as smoke billowed from the top floor.

"To avoid such tragic incidents, I have asked officials to conduct fire safety audit of all buildings," Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said on Friday.

There was no safety equipment installed in the building and no escape routes for the students, a fire official separately said.

Source: Agencies/ic

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