Asia

Blaze at religious school could have been caused by mischief, says KL fire chief

Blaze at religious school could have been caused by mischief, says KL fire chief
Malaysian Fire and Rescue personnel examining the charred interior of the second floor of the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Sept 14, 2017. Photo: Twitter/BombaJBPM
Published: 7:27 PM, September 14, 2017
Updated: 10:25 PM, September 14, 2017

KUALA LUMPUR — A blaze at an Islamic boarding school in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday (Sept 14) that killed at least 23 people, most of them teenage boys, could have been caused by mischief, said the authorities.

The fire broke out at around 5.40am in a top-floor dormitory in the three-storey building, firemen said, where most of the students were sleeping in bunk beds, with many of the windows covered by metal grills. 

One survivor said there was just one window the boys managed to open and 13 of them escaped. Two teachers were also killed in the fire at the Pusat Tahfiz Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a 15-minute drive from the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, police said, adding that most of the victims died from smoke inhalation. The fire department put out the blaze after about an hour.

The authorities said the fire could have been caused by mischief, dismissing an earlier theory that an electrical short circuit was to blame.

Health Minister S Subramaniam said the bodies were waiting to be identified through DNA and the process is expected to take at least two days. He said six students and a resident who went to help were hospitalised, with four of them in critical condition.

The disaster has renewed calls for greater scrutiny of so-called “tahfiz” schools, where students learn to memorise the Quran. They are unregulated by the education ministry, being the responsibility of the religious department.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pledged to set up a special committee to investigate the incident, while adding that such institutions must follow safety regulations.

“We will continue to carry out investigations, especially through forensics, as we found that there was some security features that should have been complied with but weren’t.” 

The deputy premier said the government would bear all funeral costs.

Prime Minister Najib Razak offered his condolences via Twitter. “I was very saddened to read (about) the fire at Pusat Tahfiz Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah and that more than 20 lives were lost. May Allah bless their souls,” he wrote. 

Fire Department operations deputy director Soiman Jahid said the dormitory had only one entrance, leaving many of the victims trapped. He said  the building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside. 

“The pupils all got locked in and they couldn’t escape and got burnt,” Ms Nadia Azalan, sister of a 13-year-old victim, told Reuters in tears as distraught family members gathered outside the building. 

Viewed from outside, the only signs of disaster were the blackened upper-floor windows. Only inside did the intensity of the inferno become clear. The dormitory was blackened, lined with charred frames of bunk beds.

School principal Mohamad Zahid Mahmod was quoted as saying that the students were being housed in a temporary building because of renovation work at the main school building. The principal said the school has been operating for 15 years and is registered with the state Islamic religious council.

However, an official with the council said it had no record of the school.

The Star newspaper said there were 519 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 since 2015. 

Tahfiz schools have been under scrutiny since earlier this year when an 11-year-old boy died after alleged abuse in Johor. AGENCIES