23 die in Malaysian school fire

Chil­dren, staff trapped as deadly blaze sweeps through dor­mi­tory

The Herald (South Africa) - - WORLD - Pa­trick Lee

ATOTAL of 23 peo­ple, mostly chil­dren, were killed yes­ter­day by a blaze that tore through a Malaysian re­li­gious school, trap­ping them in a dor­mi­tory with metal grilles bar­ring its win­dows.

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

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 inferno, which erupted be­fore dawn.

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

The ac­ci­dent will in­crease scru­tiny of the re­li­gious schools known as tah­fiz, where many Mus­lim Malaysians send their chil­dren to study the Ko­ran but which are not reg­u­lated by ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties and of­ten op­er­ate il­le­gally.

Norhayati Ab­dul Halim, who lives op­po­site the school, said she had 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.”

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

Of­fi­cials said the chil­dren had been un­able to es­cape the fire be­cause the blaze blocked the only door to the top-floor dor­mi­tory and the win­dows were closed off with metal grilles.

A to­tal of 14 pupils 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,” Health Min­is­ter S Subra­ma­niam said.

Fire of­fi­cials said they sus­pected the blaze was caused by an elec­tri­cal short cir­cuit or a mos­quito re­pelling de­vice.

Of­fi­cials said the school was op­er­at­ing with­out the cor­rect li­cences and Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Ah­mad Zahid Hamidi an­nounced au­thor­i­ties had launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

He said the premises had been only tem­po­rary, but those run­ning the school should nev­er­the­less have fol­lowed safety re­quire­ments.

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

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 said, adding an­other of his sons had been saved as he had re­fused to at­tend the school for the past fort­night.

The ac­ci­dent will add to mount­ing con­cerns about the re­li­gious study cen­tres.

They are al­ready fac­ing scru­tiny in the wake of the death of an 11-year-old boy, who was al­legedly beaten at one of the in­sti­tu­tions last year.

Zahid said fire de­part­ment records showed there had been 31 blazes at tah­fiz since 2011.

Chan­dra Muzaf­far, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who pro­motes Is­lamic re­form, said: “The lat­est tragedy was the con­se­quence of the ab­sence of en­force­ment, and the fail­ure to abide by rules and reg­u­la­tions by the op­er­a­tors of the re­li­gious school.”

“Re­li­gious schools are not above the law. One should close down schools which do not abide by the rules.”

More than 60% of mul­ti­cul­tural Malaysia’s pop­u­la­tion of about 30 mil­lion are Mus­lim Malay, and the coun­try is also home to sub­stan­tial re­li­gious and eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

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