A fire that ripped through an unlicensed Islamic religious school in Malaysia’s capital on Thursday, killing at least 21 children and two teachers, may be treated as a case of arson, officials said.
The Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah School in Kuala Lumpur has been operating for 16 years without an official permit, officials said, as the government said it would set up a task force to look into the safety of similar schools across the predominantly Muslim country.
The bodies of the victims found in the three-storey dormitory of the school located in Datuk Keramat Street had been mostly charred, said fire department officials.
The victims, aged between 10 and 17 years, were trapped behind barred windows and a locked door, officials said. Witnesses told reporters they were woken by cries for help from inside the burning building.
Firefighters said they found the bodies piled on top of each other, indicating that the victims tried to flee but were trapped by metal window grills.
“We are investigating that this blaze could have been caused by mischief,” Khirudin Drahman, Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department director, told reporters. "Our investigation is pointing that it is not from short circuit. If it was, the fire will not be that huge.”
He also dismissed early reports that an overturned mosquito coil could have sparked the fire.
Fire investigators, he said, were focusing on the mischief angle after they found two heavy cooking gas cylinders in front of the dormitory’s door.
The school, about a 15-minute drive from the iconic Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers and which is classified as a “tahfiz” center where students learn to memorise the Quran, had housed 36 students and six teachers, but did not have fire security permit and occupational certificate, officials said.
It is not immediately clear why the school was not given an operating permit despite being in business for more than a decade.
“The school had submitted the architectural plan,” Noh Omar, Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government minister, told reporters.
“However, the department had not given the school permission to use the building,” Noh Omar said.
The Star newspaper said there were 519 private tahfiz schools registered nationwide as of April, but many more are believed to be unregistered. More than 200 fires are said to have been recorded nationwide at private religious schools over the last two years.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said a committee would be set up to look into the safety aspects of these private religious schools which he said were reluctant to register with the authorities for fear that the government would interfere with their curriculum.
Tahfiz schools are not under the federal government’s Education Ministry, but are regulated by religious councils in states where they are located.
“This is not the first time such incidents have happened. Hence, this issue must be addressed,” Zahid told reporters, according to the state-owned Bernama news agency. “Regardless if the centre is privately run or not, there will be no compromise as it involves the deaths of many children.”
Six students were also critically injured after jumping out of a window on the top-most floor, according to reports.
Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Amar Singh said the bodies of the victims were found on top of each other and authorities believe the fire started at the dormitory’s front door, which was the only exit.
“And the absence of hinged grills also caused the victim to be trapped in the fire,” he said.
The tragedy attracted the attention of the Malaysian King, Sultan Muhammad V.
“Indeed, at this moment, the country is saddened by the tragedy,” the King said in a rare statement released by the controller of the Royal Household.
Family members gather at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital morgue while waiting for the release of the bodies of the fire victims, Sept. 14, 2017. [FadzilAziz/BenarNews]
Gruesome images anger people
But the rapid spread of gruesome pictures of the victims and videos that soon flooded social media ignited angry comments from religious figures, politicians and psychologists.
“I plead with all of you not to spread viral videos and pictures of the blaze through social media,” Zubaidah Jamil Osman, president of Malaysian Society of Clinical Society, said in a statement. “The (video) clips can be very traumatizing and disturbing for those who are trying to cope with these challenging and difficult times.”
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, right, talks to reporters at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital about the school fire that killed 23, Sept. 14, 2017. [FadzilAziz/BenarNews]
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, said basic safety standards could have prevented the tragic deaths.
“UNICEF calls for the establishment and enforcement of safety procedures and safeguards in all schools across Malaysia to ensure that such an unfortunate incident does not happen again,” said Marianne Clark-Hattingh, the UNICEF’s Malaysia representative.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Mas Aliza Ali Bapoo, cousin of three orphans – Muhammad Shafiq Haikal, 13, Muhammad Hafiz Iskandar, 11, and Muhammad Harris Ikhwan, 10 – said she was the closest to the three siblings who had just enrolled into the school 10 months ago.
It appeared that Shafiq, according to Mas, had a premonition of his death as he had recently called her mom telling that “he would be going soon.”
“Probably that was a sign they were going to leave us. Forever,” she said.
Norhayati Khalid, 42, mother to 11-year-old Amiel Asyraf Abdul Rashid, said she had just met her son hours before the fire.
“I brought him his favourite food, Pataya fried rice and, before I left, he handed me this letter,” she told BenarNews, sobbingly at the hospital mortuary.
The letter, handwritten on a school exercise book page, sought forgiveness for any wrongdoing he had done.
Hata Wahari contributed to this report.
Brothers Muhammad Shafiq Haikal, 13, Muhammad Hafiz Iskandar, 11, and Muhammad Harris Ikhwan, 10, were among those who died in the fire. [Courtesy of relative of the deceased]