PATNA, India — Soon after they served the daily free lunch they had prepared for dozens of children at a rural Indian school, the two cooks realized something was very wrong. The students began fainting. Within hours, they began dying.
By Thursday afternoon, 23 children ages 5 to 12 had died from eating food laced with insecticide and many others had fallen ill.
Authorities discovered a container of insecticide in the school's cooking area next to the vegetable cooking oil and mustard oil, but it wasn't yet known if that container was the source, according to Amarjeet Sinha, a top official in the state of Bihar, where the tragedy took place.
Some officials have said it appeared the rice had been tainted with insecticide and might not have been properly washed before it was cooked.
"It's not a case of food poisoning. It's a case of poison in food in a large quantity, going by the instant deaths," Sinha said.
More answers were expected today, when a forensic laboratory was to issue the results of its tests on the dead children, the food and the uncooked grain stored by the principal in her house, he said. Police were searching for the principal, who fled after the students started falling sick, Sinha said.
The cooks, Manju Devi and Pano Devi, said the principal controlled the food for the free daily lunch provided by the government at the school. On Tuesday morning, she gave them rice, potatoes, soy and other ingredients needed to prepare the meal and then went about her business. As the children ate, they started fainting, the cooks said. The cooks were not spared, either.
Manju Devi, 30, ate some of the food and fainted. Her three children — ages 5, 8 and 13 — fell ill as well. All were in stable condition Thursday.
While Pano Devi, 35, didn't eat the tainted food, her three children did. Two of them died and the third, a 4-year-old daughter, was in the hospital.
"I will stop cooking at the school," she said. "I am so horrified that I wouldn't grieve more if my only surviving child died."