Fire kills 23 at school dorm in Malaysia; exit was blocked

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD -

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia— A fire that blocked the only exit to an Is­lamic school dor­mi­tory killed 23 peo­ple, mostly teenagers, on the out­skirts of Malaysia’s largest city early Thurs­day, of­fi­cials said. A gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said a wall sep­a­rat­ing the vic­tims from a sec­ond exit “shouldn’t have been there.”

Fire­fight­ers and wit­nesses de­scribed scenes of hor­ror — first of boys scream­ing for help be­hind barred win­dows as neigh­bors watched help­lessly, and later of burned bod­ies hud­dled in cor­ners of the room. Is­lamic teacher Arif Mawardy said he woke up to what he thought was a thun­der­storm, only to re­al­ize it was the sound of peo­ple scream­ing.

Fire­fight­ers rushed to the scene af­ter re­ceiv­ing a dis­tress call at 5:41 a.m. and took an hour to put out the blaze, which started on the top floor of the three-story build­ing, Kuala Lumpur po­lice chief Amar Singh said.

Singh said 23 bod­ies were re­cov­ered — 21 boys be­tween the ages of 13 and 17, and two teach­ers.

“We be­lieve (they died of) suf­fo­ca­tion. ... The bod­ies were to­tally burnt,” he said. Singh said 14 other stu­dents and four teach­ers were res­cued.

Health Min­is­ter S. Subra­ma­niam said six other stu­dents and a res­i­dent who went to help were hos­pi­tal­ized, with four of them in crit­i­cal con­di­tion. He said the bod­ies were in the Fo- ren­sics Department wait­ing to be iden­ti­fied through DNA.

The fire broke out near the only door to the boys’ dor­mi­tory, trap­ping the vic­tims be­cause the win­dows were barred, fire department se­nior of­fi­cial Abu Obai­dat Mo­hamad Saithal­i­mat said. He said the cause was be­lieved to be an elec­tri­cal short-cir­cuit, though Singh said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was con­tin­u­ing.

Another fire department of­fi­cial, Soiman Jahid, said fire­fight­ers heard shouts for help when they ar­rived at the school.

Lo­cal me­dia showed pic­tures of black­ened bed frames in the burned dor­mi­tory. A res­i­dent, Nurhay­ati Ab­dul Halim, was quoted as say­ing that she saw the boys cry­ing and scream­ing for help.

“I saw their lit­tle hands out of the grilled win­dows; cry­ing for help. ... I heard their screams and cries but I could not do any­thing. The fire was too strong for me to do any­thing,” she said. She added that the school had been op­er­at­ing in the area for the past year.

Noh Omar, Malaysia’s min­is­ter for ur­ban well-be­ing, hous­ing and lo­cal gov­ern­ment, said the school’s orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­tural plan in­cluded an open top floor that al­lowed ac­cess to two exit stair­cases. But he said a wall had been built di­vid­ing that floor, leav­ing only one exit for the dorm.

“The wall shouldn’t have been there,” he said. He added that the school sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion for a fire safety per- mit that hadn’t been ap­proved.

The school, Darul Qu­ran It­ti­faqiyah, is a pri­vate Is­lamic cen­ter, known as a “tah­fiz” school, for chil­dren, mainly boys, to study and mem­o­rize the Qu­ran.

School Prin­ci­pal Mo­hamad Zahid Mah­mod was quoted by the Berita Har­ian news­pa­per as say­ing the stu­dents were be­ing housed in a tem­po­rary build­ing be­cause of ren­o­va­tion work at the main school build­ing. He said they were due to move back at the end of this month.

Mo­hamad Zahid said the school has been op­er­at­ing for 15 years and is reg­is­tered with the state Is­lamic re­li­gious coun­cil. He said it had housed 42 stu­dents, six teach­ers and two war­dens.

How­ever, an of­fi­cial with the state re­li­gious coun­cil said it had no record of the school.

The Star news­pa­per said there were 519 tah­fiz schools reg­is­tered na­tion­wide as of April, but many more are be­lieved to be un­reg­is­tered. Many such schools are ex­empt from state in­spec­tions.

The news­pa­per said the fire department has recorded 211 fires in such pri­vate Is­lamic cen­ters since 2015. In Au­gust, 16 peo­ple fled a fire at a tah­fiz school in north­ern Kedah state. Another tah­fiz school was de­stroyed by a fire in May but no one was hurt.

The worst fire oc­curred in 1989 when 27 fe­male stu­dents at a pri­vate Is­lamic school in Kedah state died in a blaze that gut­ted the school and eight wooden hos­tels.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Of­fi­cialswork at the scene of a fire at a re­li­gious school on the out­skirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The fire broke out near the only door to the boys’ dor­mi­tory, trap­ping vic­tims be­cause the win­dowswere barred.

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