At least 23 people were killed early Thursday in a fire that broke out in the sleeping quarters of an Islamic boarding school in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, local officials said.
“They were screaming asking for help,” a resident said after witnessing the blaze.
“My wife can’t accept this news because we weren’t able to help.
“She was the first person to hear this and an explosion sound.
“She saw a few of the students that were screaming for help.”
Shocked and speechless families were shown crying on television.
The city’s Fire and Rescue Department received information about the blaze at 5:41 am (2141 GMT Wednesday) and managed to extinguish the fire within an hour, Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said.
Twenty-one of those killed were boys aged between 13 and 17 and the other two victims were teachers, Singh said. Authorities initially said 24 people had died.
“They died from suffocation and subsequently the bodies were totally burnt,” Singh said.
Malaysian Health Minister Dr S Subramaniam said in a press conference at the hospital that DNA samples would be taken from the families of the deceased as the bodies were too badly burnt to identify the victims.
Subramaniam said the traumatized families would be provided with psychological assistance.
He said one of the injured in hospital was a resident living near the school who came to help.
“We hope to be able to save the seven that are already here,” he added.
Confirming the 23 deaths and 14 victims in hospital, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said as he visited the school: “On behalf of the prime minister who is in the United States of America right now, we would like to wish our condolences to the families and victims at this tahfiz school.
“We understand this is a temporary tahfiz school, but precautions should be taken into consideration,” the deputy premier said.
He added that the government is always concerned with the safety of schools.
“The Fire Department previously helped in May, with a firemen squad training in tahfiz schools in the event of a fire how should they go about it.”
“Right now, DVI (Disaster Victim Identification) is being done at Kuala Lumpur Hospital,” Zahid told reporters in a press conference.
The fire broke out near an entrance on the second floor. The pupils were also unable to escape through the windows.
Pictures that were initially circulated on social media of badly burnt bunk beds and bodies were requested not to be sent out of respect for the deceased and the sanity of the families.
“The sad part is, during this incident, there was only one entrance to exit through, so the students were trapped inside,” Singh said.
Another 14 students and four teachers managed to escape or were rescued, he added.
Muhammad Danial, a pupil who was on the second floor and who survived, told reporters on the scene that he helped to get as many students as he could out from a window on the other side.
He said two of the survivors pulled off a grill and dived down to rescue themselves.
Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed his sympathies on Twitter: “It’s sad to read Tahfiz Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Centre burned & killed more than 20 lives. May their souls be blessed by Allah.”
Singh said it was too soon to determine the cause of the fire, however the possibility of an electrical short circuit was being investigated.
There are 519 tahfiz schools – where children are sent to memorize the Koran – registered in Malaysia, however many more are believed to be unregistered, the Star Online reported.
Last month, the Star reported 211 fires had occurred in tahfiz schools nationwide within the last two years, according to records by the fire and rescue department.
In 1989, 27 female pupils at an Islamic school died when a fire destroyed the school and eight wooden hostels, the Star reported.