KUALA LUMPUR - Police suspected a short circuit was the cause of a fire at a religious school in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday (Sept 14) that killed 24 people.
Fire department officials said 22 students - all boys aged between 13 and 17 - and two teachers were killed in the early morning blaze at Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz Centre in Jalan Datuk Keramat.
"At the moment our first suspicion is that it was a short circuit. But the forensics team will look at every aspect," The Star Online quoted Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Noor Rashid Ibrahim as saying at a press conference.
City police chief Comm Datuk Amar Singh said there were 36 students and six teachers staying in the school. Five people were in hospital, according to the report.
The authorities said the school had been operating without a licence and did not have a fire safety permit.
"The religious school did not have an operating licence from the local authorities," said Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor. "The school also does not have any licence from the local religious authorities."
The Star Online said the school was in the midst of applying for a fire safety permit. But it started its operations before the permit was approved by the Fire and Rescue Department.
Speaking in Sibu, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said all Islamic religious schools must register with authorities and follow safety requirements.
"Regardless of whether the centre is privately run or not, there will be no compromise as it involves the deaths of many children," the New Straits Times quoted the DPM as saying.
"This is not the first time such incident has happened. Hence, this issue must be addressed," he told reporters. He urged all privately run religious schools and centres to register with their respective states' Islamic religious councils.
Initial investigations found that the victims "tried to escape through the windows but were stopped due to the fixed grilles on the windows", said Fire and Safety Department Deputy Director-General (Operations) Datuk Soiman Jahid. He added that the department would have advised the school to install hinged grilles.
Tahfiz, or religious, schools usually teach students between the ages of five and 18. Such schools are not regulated by the education ministry and fall under the purview of the religious department, according to Reuters.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was put out within an hour but not before it wreaked terrible devastation.
Mr Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur's fire and rescue department, said it was one of the country's worst fire tragedies in 20 years.
Photos published by local media showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds, as horrific accounts emerged of the youngsters trying to escape the school as it went up in flames, according to AFP.
The Star newspaper reported that people in the area who had woken for morning prayers heard cries for help and saw flames engulfing the top floor of the building, where children were sleeping in dorms.
"The children were desperately trying to escape the flames," Minister Tengku Adnan said in a television interview. "There were metal grilles which prevented them from exiting the burning building."
The New Straits Times reported that local residents tried to enter the school to rescue the students but could not get far due to the raging fire and thick smoke.
Mr Babul Amir, 21, said he tried to save a student who was trapped on the building's second floor.
"I ran up the stairs after hearing screams for help, but I couldn't go far because of the intense heat," he told Berita Harian. "I saw two students lying motionless in their beds before firemen told me to get away."
Mr Shahirman Shahril, 39, said he and several other residents told some of the trapped pupils to jump out of the windows, the New Straits Times reported.
"Their cries for help are still ringing in my ears. I'm very sad because I couldn't do anything," he said.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Datuk Amar Singh Ishar Singh said the bodies were found at two locations on the third floor of the building which was occupied by 36 students, Bernama reported.
"Unfortunately there was only one entrance, so they could not escape. All the bodies were found lumped on one another," he said.
He said the religious school only had one exit, the reason why most of the occupants were trapped and could not be saved. The fire was believed to have started at the exit.
The windows also did not have safety features that allowed for use during emergency, according to Bernama.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak yesterday expressed his condolences over the deaths.
"Innalillah. Very sad to read of the Tahfiz Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah fire and the loss of 20 lives. May their souls be blessed by Allah. Al-Fatihah," Mr Najib tweeted. He is currently in Washington DC for a three-day working visit.
Local media reported that officials had recently raised fire safety concerns about such private schools.
The Star newspaper reported that the fire and rescue department had raised concerns about fire safety measures at unregistered and private tahfiz, and had recorded 211 fires at the institutions since 2015.
In August, 16 people including eight students fled an early morning fire at a family-run tahfiz in Baling, in the northern state of Kedah, the paper reported.
There were 519 tahfiz schools registered across the country as of April, but many more are believed to be unregistered, the paper said.
It said there was a major fire at a school in 1989 in the northern state of Kedah, which killed 27 female students.
In October last year, six people died in a fire that swept through the intensive care unit of a major hospital in the southern state of Johor.