Malaysia buries vic­tims of deadly school fire


KUALA LUMPUR: Vic­tims of a fire at an Is­lamic school in the Malaysian cap­i­tal that killed 23 boys and teach­ers were buried Fri­day, as hun­dreds of mourn­ers looked on in stunned si­lence.

The blaze erupted in the board­ing school in down­town Kuala Lumpur be­fore dawn Thurs­day. Fire­fight­ers ex­tin­guished the blaze within an hour, but not be­fore it had gut­ted the cen­ter’s top-floor dor­mi­tory.

Hor­rific ac­counts emerged of stu­dents scream­ing in des­per­a­tion be­cause they were un­able to es­cape the in­ferno as the dor­mi­tory’s only door was on fire and metal se­cu­rity grilles barred the win­dows.

Res­cuers found the bod­ies of 21 school­boys and two teach­ers in piles, in­di­cat­ing there may have been a stam­pede as the stu­dents sought to flee the fire, the coun­try’s worst for two decades.

At the Raud­hatul Sak­i­nah ceme­tery on the out­skirts of Kuala Lumpur, a 1,000-strong crowd of mourn­ers fell silent as the first body — of 10-year-old Mo­hamad Aidil Aq­mal — ar­rived in a hearse.

He was solemnly low­ered into a grave be­fore his fam­ily sprin­kled scented water onto his fi­nal rest­ing place.

His grand­fa­ther, Zakaria Darus, said he was a “charm­ing lit­tle kid” and his death was like a heavy blow to the head.

“I just can’t be­lieve he has died, I will miss his com­pany,” he told AFP.

The re­mains of an­other eight school­boys ar­rived soon af­ter­wards in hearses and were buried. An­other three chil­dren were to be buried at the same site, while the other vic­tims were to be buried at dif­fer­ent ceme­ter­ies.

Be­fore be­ing trans­ported to the ceme­tery, fi­nal prayers were said for the vic­tims at a prayer hall at a Kuala Lumpur hos­pi­tal.

The blaze has sparked out­rage and fo­cused at­ten­tion on re­li­gious schools in Malaysia, where many Mus­lims send their chil­dren to study the Qur’an.

Po­lice ini­tially be­lieved the fire was an ac­ci­dent caused by an elec­tri­cal short cir­cuit or a mos­quito-re­pelling de­vice but said Fri­day they were not rul­ing out foul play.

Khirudin Drah­man, di­rec­tor of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and res­cue depart­ment, told AFP that author­i­ties were now in­ves­ti­gat­ing claims gas cylin­ders could have played a role.

One of the sur­vivors said two cylin­ders were left by the dor­mi­tory door and had caught fire, pre­vent­ing those in­side from leav­ing.

“We have not ruled out foul play,” Khirudin said, adding that fires in dor­mi­to­ries were typ­i­cally caused by unat­tended cook­ing or mos­quito coils.

Some of the chil­dren did man­age to es­cape by break­ing through a grille and jump­ing out or slid­ing down drain pipes. A hand­ful are still in hos­pi­tal.

The case has prompted calls for bet­ter reg­u­la­tion of Is­lamic schools, which are over­seen by re­li­gious author­i­ties rather than the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry.

The school in­volved in Thurs­day’s fire was a known as a tah­fiz, and of­fi­cials say it did not have the nec­es­sary op­er­at­ing li­censes, in­clud­ing a fire safety per­mit.

The Star news­pa­per, cit­ing data from the fire depart­ment, said there were 1,034 blazes at reg­is­tered and un­reg­is­tered re­li­gious schools be­tween 2015 and Au­gust 2017, with 211 de­stroyed.

“(Schools) must com­ply with the rules or else they can­not op­er­ate, es­pe­cially when they house such young chil­dren,” Hatta Ramli, an op­po­si­tion law­maker from Na­tional Trust Party, told AFP.

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