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Malaysia probes if deadly school fire was caused by gas cylinders left at dormitory door

Director of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and rescue department said authorities were investigating claims gas cylinders could have played a role in fire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 3:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 10:40pm

Malaysian authorities said Friday they had not ruled out foul play in a fire that killed 23 children and teachers in a religious school, as calls mounted for better safety regulations in Islamic 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 school’s top-floor dormitory.

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.

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, said 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.”

Horrific accounts emerged of students crying out in desperation and sticking their hands through the metal security bars surrounding the dormitory as the fire took hold, with neighbours looking on helplessly.

Some managed to escape by breaking through a grille and jumping out or sliding down drain pipes. A handful are being treated in hospital.

It was the latest tragedy involving one of the country’s religious schools, which are overseen by religious authorities rather than the education ministry, and prompted calls for better regulation.

The school involved in Thursday’s fire, Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, did not have the necessary operating licences, including a fire safety permit.

The Star newspaper, citing data from the fire service, 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, said.

“The risk of fires or other disasters is there.”

Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia who served for 23 years, said no lessons had been learned in nearly three decades, citing a similar tragedy that killed 27 female students at a religious school in 1989.

“I’m sad that this kind of incident happened again,” he was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insight, a local news portal after visiting the families of the victims on Thursday.

“Safety measures are very important. I hope after this, all schools will review (their safety standards) if such incidents happen.”

Additional reporting by Reuters