Asia Pacific / Crime & Legal

Indian police charge owners of private Gujarat school as fire death toll hits 20

AFP-JIJI

Indian police Saturday charged the owners of a private school which turned into an inferno that killed 20 teenagers, some who 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 the tuition center illegally set up on the top of a commercial building in the western city of Surat, the officials said.

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

A youth died in hospital Saturday, increasing the toll, as an inquiry revealed that the victims were studying in a plastic dome that was quickly engulfed by flames.

The victims were aged between 15 and 22, police said. More than 50 students were in classes when the fire broke out.

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

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

Surat Police Commissioner Satish Sharma told reporters that one of the accused, Bhargav Bhutani, had been detained. Media reports said the other two were on the run.

Sharma appealed for calm after some groups called for public protests while there were angry skirmishes Friday night at the hospital where the injured were taken.

But 22-year-old Ketan Chodvadiya has been hailed as a hero of the tragedy after he was shown in videos climbing the side of the flaming building to try to save some of the teenagers.

“I climbed to the spot where I was seen in the video with the help of a ladder,” he told the Indian Express newspaper.

“One student fell down and I couldn’t catch her. I could see her lying dead and I can’t forget the sight and I will always regret that I couldn’t save her, but I am happy I could help around eight to 10 students escape,” he added.

Widespread safety breaches were found at the center, 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 stories had been illegally constructed, according to Basant Parekh, a chief fire official.

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

Officials in the city of Surat have set up a team to identify other illegal structures being used for tuition classes during the exam season.

Images showing flames and black smoke billowing out of the building and students jumping from the upper floors have been widely shared.

Widespread public grief and anger has been expressed over the disaster.

Bollywood superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan said on Twitter that he felt “grief beyond expression.”

R. Madhavan, another leading actor and a producer, said on Twitter: “Those breaking the norms should be EXECUTED.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who comes from Gujarat state, also expressed his condolences.

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