At least 23 schoolchildren and others have died in a fire at an Islamic religious school near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a fire department official said.
The fire broke out earl;y on Thursday in a top-floor dormitory in the three-storey building, firemen said, where most of the students, aged between 13 and 17, were sleeping in bunk beds, with many of the windows covered by metal grills.
Two teachers were also killed in the fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a 15-minute drive from the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, police said. Most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
The disaster has renewed calls for greater scrutiny of so-called “tahfiz” schools, where students learn to memorise the Koran. They are unregulated by the education ministry, being the responsibility of the religious department.
At least 30 fires at such schools have been reported this year, Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Noh Omar told reporters, adding that the Kuala Lumpur school should not have been in operation.
Fire department operations deputy director Soiman Jahid said officials were investigating the fire but it was likely caused by a short circuit or a mosquito repellent coil.
The dormitory had only one entrance, leaving many of the victims trapped, he said. At least one window was unbarred.
“The building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside. The students, after realising the fire and heavy smoke, tried to escape through the window,” Soiman said outside the school.
“But because of the grills, they could not escape.”
Soiman said the school had submitted a request for fire safety approval but no new checks had been carried out as the request was still being processed.
“The pupils all got locked in and they couldn’t escape and got burnt,” Nadia Azalan, sister of a 13-year-old victim, told Reuters in tears. “Safety should come first.”
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 told Reuters.
“I only managed to save a few of the kids who jumped out the window.”