Indian police charge owners as school fire toll hits 20

Surat (India) (AFP) –


Indian police on Saturday charged the owners of a private school after a fire 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 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.

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.

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani ordered a review of fire safety at hospitals and education institutions across the state.

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

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

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

"A devastating fire and 14-17 year old children caught in it jump off the building and perish," he said.

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

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."