Indian police charge owners as school fire toll hits 20

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Gujarat Chief Minister Vijaybhai Rupani stands near the bodies of students who died in the fire in Surat

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijaybhai Rupani stands near the bodies of students who died in the fire in Surat (AFP Photo/STR)

Surat (India) (AFP) - Indian police on 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 centre 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 on Friday afternoon have spread on social media.

A youth died in hospital on 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 erupted.

Government officials said five of the dead had been due to receive exam results determining their university entrance on Saturday. All 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. 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 on 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 ten students escape," he added.

Widespread safety breaches were found 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, 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.

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".

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, also expressed condolences.