A fire at an Islamic boarding school for boys killed at least 24 people, most of them students, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Thursday morning, officials said.
Officials suspected an electrical short circuit caused the blaze that broke out in a top floor dormitory, where most of the students perished.
The fire at Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a ‘tahfiz’ boarding school where students learn to memorize the Koran, was reported around 5.40 a.m. local time (2140 GMT Wednesday), according to a statement from the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department.
The blaze began in the sleeping quarters on the top floor of the three-storey school building, the statement said.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh told reporters that 22 students and 2 wardens were killed. All the students were boys aged 13-17, and they probably suffocated due to smoke inhalation.
“They’re still counting the bodies, which were piled on top of each other in a corner,” Singh said in the aftermath of one of the worst fires in Malaysia during the past two decades.
The dormitory had only one entrance, leaving many of the victims trapped inside, he said. Some witnesses said they had heard the students crying for help after the fire broke out.
“The building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside. The students, after realizing the fire and heavy smoke, tried to escape through the window,” said Fire and Rescue Department operations deputy director Soiman Jahid told reporters outside the school.
“But because of the grills, they could not escape,” he said.
Soiman said they were still investigating the cause of the fire but it was likely caused by short circuit or a lit mosquito repellant coil.
A man identified only as Hazin, who lived next door to the school, said his son called the fire department after they heard screams and saw the flames.
“The children were crying for help, but I couldn’t help them as the door was already on fire,” he said.
“I only managed to save a few of the kids who jumped out the window.”
Hazin said his friend’s son was among the students who perished.
“We ran there because he knew he was inside, but I couldn’t save him. He was trapped inside,” he said.
While the emergency services removed the victims and inspected the site, distraught parents were seen crying as they spoke with officials on the street where hundreds of people had gathered.
Viewed from outside the only obvious tell-tale signs of disaster at the school were the blackened upper floor windows, as otherwise the tin roofed building appeared unscathed, with a Malaysian flag hanging limply from the yellow external walls.
Only inside did the intensity of the inferno become clear, as the dormitory was completely blackened, lined with the charred frames of bunk beds where the boys had slept.
Several of the 18 survivors were taken to hospital to be treated for injuries, officials said. Trucks carrying bodies of the victims were seen arriving at the morgue.
Tahfiz schools, which are unregulated by the education ministry and fall under the purview of the religious department, have been under scrutiny since earlier this year when an 11-year-old boy died after reported abuse in Johor, north of Singapore.
Officials said based on the records of the Kuala Lumpur fire safety department, the school had just submitted a request for fire safety approval for the building but no checks had been carried as at the request was still being processed.