KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A fire killed 24 people, mostly teenagers, trapped behind barred windows and a blocked exit in an Islamic school dormitory on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital early Thursday, officials said.
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. He said there were at least 24 charred bodies, 22 of them boys between 13 and 17, and two teachers.
Singh said 14 other students and four teachers were rescued, with six of them hospitalized in critical condition.
“We believe (they died of) suffocation … the bodies were totally burnt,” he said.
The fire broke out near the door of the boys’ dormitory, trapping the victims as it was the only entrance and the windows are grilled, fire department senior official Abu Obaidat Mohamad Saithalimat said.
He said the cause was believed to be an electrical short-circuit.
Another fire department official Soiman Jahid said firefighters heard shouts for help when they arrived at the school. He said they found 13 bodies huddled in a pile on the right corner of the dorm, another eight on the left corner of the dorm and one in the middle near the staircase.
Soiman said initial investigations showed the school had just submitted an application to the city council for building safety approval but couldn’t give further details.
A fire department official who declined to be named because he wasn’t authorized to give a statement said the bodies were piled on top of each other, indicating a possible stampede as people tried to flee the fire. The official had earlier said 25 bodies were found, but the more recent tally of dead and injured matches the number of people thought to have resided there.
Singh said police were still finalizing the details and investigating the cause.
Local media showed pictures of blackened bunk beds frames in the burned dormitory. A resident, Nurhayati Abdul Halim, told local media that she saw the boys crying and screaming for help when the fire broke.
“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, adding that the school had been operating in the area for the past year.
The Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah is a private Islamic center, known as a “tahfiz” school, for Muslim children, mainly boys, to study and memorize the Quran. Many such schools are exempt from state inspections.
The Star newspaper said there were 519 tahfiz schools registered nationwide as of April, but many more are believed to be unregistered.
The newspaper said the fire department had 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 disaster occurred in 1989 when 27 female students at a private Islamic school in Kedah state died when fire gutted the school and eight wooden hostels.