They prevented students from going to Sivakasi blast site

The presence of mind of teachers at the Government Higher Secondary School at Thiagarajapuram on Teachers’ Day ensured that none of the 800-odd students of the school could get anywhere close to the nearby fireworks unit where an accident killed 38 persons.

The 20 teachers, led by headmaster S. Srinivasan, made all the students assemble on the ground away from the buildings, after they felt strong jolts following a series of explosions.

“The first blast was heard a little past noon. We noticed smoke passing through classrooms. The first floor of the building started to shake. As a precautionary measure, we brought all the students of the four classrooms in the first floor to the ground,” the headmaster said. The school is located some 500 metres away the Om Sakthi Fireworks Industries.

“During an earlier accident in another nearby cracker unit, a few students managed to slip away to watch the happenings. This time, we found many workers running for their life near our school premises. They warned us against venturing closer,” Tamil teacher K. Sundaresan said. The teachers were worried as the boys, whose relatives worked in the ill-fated unit, would try to go there, as the bell was about to ring for lunch break.

“The first thing I did was to switch off power supply to the electric bell. Had it rung, it might have become impossible to stop the children from going out,” Mr. Srinivasan said. (The lunch break is between 12.40 to 1.15 p.m.). The teachers told the students, who usually go home for lunch, to share food brought by their friends or take the noon meal. “We also informed the parents through a local person that they could help their wards by bringing food to school,” he added.

Some of the parents who came to the school asked the teachers to keep their wards under their control as they might not heed the parents’ advice on going home. As the explosions grew louder, a section of students started crying and many did not have lunch out of fear.

Some of those who escaped from the cracker unit warned the teachers that a bigger explosion could take place. In the third explosion, the asbestos roof over the staircase of the laboratory building developed cracks, adding to their fear.

“Soon, we tried to move the students to the farthest corner of the school. We opened the side gate and took them through the bushes towards the village side at around 3.30 p.m.,” Mr. Sundaresan said. With no bus service, parents of nearby villages, who by then had heard of the worst-ever accident, had come. “We ensured that the students were taken care of by at least one adult from their locality,” the headmaster said.

The poor condition of the road connecting Virudhunagar with Sivakasi through Mudalipatti, which normally causes great inconvenience to road users, proved to be a blessing in disguise for the firefighters of Virudhunagar town. To cover a distance of 26 km, the first fire tender from the headquarters reached just a couple of minutes before the final blast. In normal conditions, the tender could be operated at a speed of as high as 80 kmph.

“We came faster on the four-lane highway. But, it took us so much of time to reach the accident site, because of the bad road condition and due to haphazard parking of two-wheelers near the unit,” a fire and rescue service personnel said. “If things were normal, we would have entered the cracker unit premises at least 10 minutes before the blast. We cannot imagine how much worse it could have been.”