Twenty-three people, mostly children, have died after a blaze tore through a Malaysian religious school, trapping them in a dormitory with metal grilles barring the windows.
Pupils and teachers inside Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah school, an Islamic study centre in downtown Kuala Lumpur, screamed for help as neighbours looked on, unable to come to their aid.
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 started before dawn.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was out within an hour but it had wreaked terrible destruction. Pictures showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds in the students’ sleeping quarters.
The accident will increase scrutiny of the religious schools known as tahfiz, to which many Muslim Malaysians send their children to study the Qur’an but which are not regulated by education authorities and often operate illegally.
Norhayati Abdul Halim, 46, who lives opposite the school, said she heard screams as the morning call to prayer rang out. “I thought there were people fighting,” she 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 the firefighters arrived, “the screams had stopped”, she said.
Officials said many of the children were unable to escape because 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 were being treated in hospital. “They escaped by breaking through a grille and then jumping down. Some of them came down holding on to [drain] pipes,” said the health minister, 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.
Officials said the school was operating without the correct licences. The deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who visited the scene, said authorities had launched an investigation.
He said the premises had been temporary but those running the school should nevertheless have followed safety requirements.
Subramaniam said the bodies of 21 students and two staff members had been recovered, revising down an earlier official death toll of 24. The bodies, many of them severely burned, were being identified by DNA tests, he said.
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 the previous evening.
“He was in a jovial mood, he loved studying here,” he said. Another of his sons had been “saved”, he said, as he had refused to attend the school for the past fortnight.
Religious study centres are already facing scrutiny in the wake of the death of an 11-year-old boy who had allegedly been beaten at one of the institutions last year.
Zahid, the deputy PM, 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 were not “above the law. One should close down schools which do not abide by the rules,” he said.
More than 60% of 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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