KUMBAKONAM, India -- Parents of the dead went home, silently weeping. Others sat in the sun yesterday outside a hospital, hoping their children will survive burns they suffered in a school fire in southern India that killed 90 children.
Many were the first in their families to go to school, escaping generations of illiteracy in this country, where one-third of more than 1 billion people still cannot read or write.
The fire Friday at the private Lord Krishna Middle School was sparked by dry coconut leaves used as firewood at a makeshift kitchen, which prepared free food subsidized by the government.
While poor, Indian families have increasingly come to rely on private schools, paying a tuition fee that ranges from $5 to $100 a month.
Tens of thousands of ill-equipped private schools have mushroomed across Indian towns and cities in the past decade, as the cash-strapped government cut spending on education and stopped building additional schools to curtail its burgeoning budget deficit.
Public schools, while often better equipped than their private counterparts, can be miles away and impossible to reach on foot.
Almost all of the children at Lord Krishna Middle School came from poor families, and the grieving parents included menial laborers, shopkeepers, low-paid government servants, and villagers.
"I have lost everything I had," said Simon Anthony Dass, a porter, who lost both his sons -- 15-year-old Aravind and 9-year-old Anish Kumar. Dass had never been to school, and had hoped his children would have a brighter future.
He said witnesses told him Aravind had initially escaped, but returned to the burning building to rescue his younger brother. Both died.
By Friday evening, 45 bodies had been cremated in mass ceremonies. The rest were cremated yesterday.
Many injured were still being treated at the town's 390-bed, government-run hospital.
Residents of Kumbakonam, 1,300 miles south of New Delhi, India's capital, demanded action against the culprits.
"This was sheer murder," said M.A. Kumar, who sweeps the town's streets for a living. "Those responsible for this must be hanged."
Police arrested five school officials: the principal; his wife, who is part of the school's management; his daughter, who helped run the school; and two kitchen workers. They were being held on negligence charges.
After Friday's fire in Tamil Nadu state, its top elected official, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, ordered safety inspections of all schools in the state.
Most of these schools are located 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 Lord Krishna school, its long, narrow, windowless classrooms each had only one exit. The flames jumped quickly to the thatched roofs of the building, and many children were unable to escape.
Newspapers criticized the lack of adequate exits and fire extinguishers as well as the fact that cooking was being carried out under a thatched roof. The papers also turned on the teachers, none of whom were killed.
The state government gave 100,000 rupees, or $2,175, in compensation to the parents of each victim. In New Delhi Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an investigation into the blaze.
The Perumandi cremation and burial ground in the town stayed open overnight as attendants buried or burned the bodies of dozens of children killed in the blaze.
"The parents are rushing through the last rites as they cannot bear to look at the charred bodies any more," said the burial ground owner, Subramanian.
A short distance away were 15 piles of smoldering ashes, the remains of cremated children. Piles of firewood were stacked nearby in preparation for more corpses.
Material from Reuters was included in this report.