But as the police investigated what is being termed as India's worst fire in the last decade, grieving parents buried the dead on Saturday and blamed the authorities.

The 90 children, aged between seven and 12, were burned to death when the thatched-roof of the Saraswati Primary School in Kumbakonam, 350km from the southern city of Chennai, went up in flames.

Rescuers told horror stories of the fight to save the children who struggled to flee the blaze, only to be blocked by a metal door locked from the outside.

Closed door

"When we finally broke through and entered the first floor, we found all the dead children in a huddle, one child hugging the other – all embracing each other and some clinging to the closed grill door," one rescuer said.

The dead totaled 46 girls and 44 boys whose charred bodies were handed to their parents for funerals. Eighteen children were in hospital but only one of them was in a critical condition, doctors said.

"The others will pull through," said plastic surgeon V Jayaraman.

ِAt the funeral site near the school, a seemingly unending parade of distraught parents brought their children for burial.

"My entire world has collapsed as I have lost both my children," sobbed 33-year-old Simon Antonidas.

Anguished parents

The government has announced compensation of $2170 for each of the victims' families, but relatives of the dead were not consoled.

"No amount of money can compensate me for losing my son, he was so precious to me," wailed Manjula Murthy, whose nine-year-old son died in the blaze.

The school's head teacher and two other school officials have been arrested, along with the school cook and the organiser of the noon meal centre.

Officials believe the fire began in the school kitchen where cooks were preparing lunch for the children. Sparks leapt to the thatched roof of the primary school, setting it alight and trapping the victims when it collapsed.