Residential religious school fire kills 21 children, 2 wardens

(File Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR: Twenty-three people, mostly children, were killed yesterday when a blaze tore through a religious school, trapped in their dormitory by metal grilles on the windows.

Pupils and wardens inside the Islamic study centre in Kuala Lumpur screamed for help as neighbours looked on.

Many of the bodies of the victims — who included 21 boys mostly in their teens — were found piled on top of one another, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to escape the blaze which erupted before dawn.

Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was put out within an hour but it wreaked terrible devastation.

Pictures in local media showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds in the students’ sleeping quarters.

The accident will increase scrutiny of religious schools. Norhayati Abdul Halim, who lives opposite the school, told AFP she heard screams as the morning call to prayer rang out.

“I thought there were people fighting,” the 46-year-old said.

“I opened the window to my house and I could see the school on fire — they cried for help but I couldn’t do anything.”

By the time firefighters arrived at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah school in the heart of the capital, “the screams had stopped”, she added.

Officials said that the children were unable to escape after the fire broke out, as the blaze blocked the only door to the top-floor dormitory and the windows were closed off with metal security grilles.

Fourteen students managed to get out, and seven are being treated in hospital.

“They escaped by breaking through a grille, and then jumping down, some of them came down holding onto (drain) pipes,” said Health Minister Datuk Seri S Subramaniam.

Fire officials said they suspected the blaze — one of the deadliest in Malaysia for two decades — was caused by an electrical short circuit, or a mosquito repelling device.

Dr Subramaniam said the bodies of 21 students and two staff members had been recovered, revising down an earlier official death toll of 24.

He said the bodies were being identified via DNA tests. As they had been severely burned, it would take some time.

Nik Azlan Nik Abdul Kadir, who lost a 12-year-old in the fire, hugged his sobbing wife outside the school, and said he had seen his son only the previous evening.

“He was in a jovial mood — he loved studying here,” he told AFP, adding another of his sons had been spared as he had refused to attend school for the past fortnight. — AFP

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