Malaysian authorities said Friday they had not ruled out foul play in a fire that killed 23 children and teachers in an Islamic school, as calls mounted for better safety regulations at religious study centres.
The fire broke out in the boarding school in downtown Kuala Lumpur before dawn Thursday. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within an hour, but not before it had gutted the centre’s top-floor dormitory.
Horrific accounts emerged of students screaming in desperation because they were unable to escape the inferno as the dormitory’s only door was on fire and metal security grilles barred the windows.
Rescuers found the bodies of 21 schoolboys and two teachers in piles, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to escape the inferno.
As medics finished identifying the badly-burnt bodies using DNA tests, graves were being dug at a graveyard outside Kuala Lumpur where some of the victims were expected to be buried later Friday.
The fire and rescue department initially said they believed the blaze — the worst in Malaysia for two decades — was caused by an electrical short circuit or a mosquito-repelling device.
But Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and rescue department, told AFP that authorities were now investigating claims gas cylinders could have played a role.
One of the survivors said two cylinders were left by the dormitory door and had caught fire, preventing those inside from leaving.
“We have not ruled out foul play,” Khirudin said, adding that fires in dormitories were typically caused by unattended cooking or mosquito coils.
“The forensic team is doing the laboratory tests. We want to wrap up the results as soon as possible.”
At a hospital in the capital, hearses carried some of the schoolboys’ bodies to a small Islamic prayer hall where they were to be prepared for burial, as anxious families waited.
At the burial site on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, 12 graves were being prepared and chairs had been set up under canopies for family members.
Gravedigger Nasri Mustapha, 42, said he felt a “deep sense of sorrow, anger and helplessness”.
“I am a parent — the children died hugging one another,” he told AFP. “Some were holding the Koran in their hands.”
Some of the children did manage to escape by breaking through a grille and jumping out or sliding down drain pipes. A handful are still in hospital.
It was the latest controversy involving one of the country’s Islamic schools, which are overseen by religious authorities rather than the education ministry, and has prompted calls for better regulation.
The school involved in Thursday’s fire was a tahfiz, where Muslim Malaysians send their children to study the Koran, and officials say it did not have the necessary operating licences, including a fire safety permit.
The Star newspaper, citing data from the fire department, said there were 1,034 blazes at registered and unregistered religious schools between 2015 and August 2017, with 211 destroyed.
“(Islamic schools) must comply with the rules or else they cannot operate, especially when they house such young children,” Hatta Ramli, an opposition lawmaker from Islamic party Amanah, told AFP.
“The risk of fires or other disasters is there.”
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of over 30 million are Muslim Malays, and the country is also home to substantial ethnic and religious minorities.