25 killed in Malaysia school fire after grilles trap them inside

Most of them were students aged 13 to 17 who died mostly of smoke inhalation

A crowd gathering outside the Darul Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, where a fire killed 23 students and two teachers. PHOTO: REUTERS
A Fire and Rescue Department officer inspecting one of the school’s rooms. Many students were trapped inside the burning building by window grilles on the third floor. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Nik Azlan Nik Abdul Kadir and his wife, who lost their child, grieving outside the school. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A pre-dawn fire at a private Islamic religious school in Kuala Lumpur killed 25 people, mostly students trapped inside by window grilles on the third floor.

Some living near the Darul Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz, or religious school, said they heard the boys' cries for help because they could not get out.

The victims, who were aged 13 to 17, although one was said to be seven years old, died mostly of smoke inhalation. Two teachers were killed in the fire as well.

Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said the bodies were found piled on top of one another and "totally burned", The Star reported.

DNA samples would be needed from family members to identify the victims, The Star quoted Health Minister S. Subramaniam as saying. "We are working full time and hope to complete the process in a couple of days' time," he said after visiting families of the victims.

The authorities said yesterday that the school did not have a valid occupancy permit from the Fire and Rescue Department. It submitted an application last month, even though it has been operating for a year.

"However, the department had not given the school permission to use the building," said Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Noh Omar.

Yesterday's tragedy is certain to increase scrutiny of such religious schools, which come under the purview of the Islamic Development Department instead of the Education Ministry. This year alone, there were about 30 fires involving such schools, said Tan Sri Noh.

About half of the 1,200 private Islamic schools in the country are not registered, according to estimates by the Federation of National Associations of al-Quran Tahfiz Institutions. Darul Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz is one of them. The Straits Times reported in June that there is a lack of regulation of private Islamic schools.

"We would like to prioritise the children's safety, but these schools view our monitoring as interference," Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters.

The tragedy could have been avoided if the school had taken proper measures, said fire officials. Fire department director-general Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim said the beds were placed too close together and there was only one door, which does not meet safety requirements.

"The pupils all got locked in and they couldn't escape and got burned," said Ms Nadia Azalan, whose 13-year-old brother died in the fire, Reuters reported.

The fire was not caused by a short circuit as initially believed, City Fire and Rescue Department director Khirudin Drahman said. "We found that the fire had spread in a strange and unusual manner, quickly, and in a big way. Usually, if a short circuit is the cause, the main fuse would trip and it would take at least 30 minutes for the fire to spread," Bernama quoted him as saying.

"Based on information from surviving victims, the fire started outside the door to the hostel, trapping them inside," he added.

There were 36,000 students in 547 registered tahfiz schools in January last year. Mr Zahid said there are roughly 50,000 such students nationwide.

The Darul Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz was built with the contributions from a nearby surau, or prayer hall.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2017, with the headline 25 killed in Malaysia school fire after grilles trap them inside. Subscribe