BODIES with burnt flesh piled on top one another, charred remains of victims, blackened and ash-covered beds – this was the scene reported by firefighters at one of the worst tragedies to hit Kuala Lumpur in decades.
A deadly fire broke out at Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a “tahfiz” boarding school in Kampung Datuk Keramat, in the early hours of Thursday morning, killing dozens of its student residents and injuring the rest who survived. Tahfiz refers to religious schools where students learn how to memorise the Quran.
“It really does not make sense for so many to die in the fire. I think it is one of the country’s worst fire disasters in the past 20 years.,” Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and rescue department told AFP (via Al Jazeera).
Speculations are now rife over how the fire was caused and how it was able to kill so many.
Authorities have said it will be days or weeks before we know anything conclusive, but here’s what we do know so far:
1. Who are the victims?
The death toll at the time of writing stands 23, according to figures released by Health Minister Dr S. Subramaniam Thursday night. This includes 21 children aged between 13 and 17 years and two wardens.
Three brothers, aged between 10 and 13 years, were among the tahfiz pupils in the said dorm on fire. Firefighters said their remains were found huddled together near or under the bed in the dormitory.
Fourteen pupils managed to escape. Mohd Osman Aziz, a firefighter, told The Malaysian Insight he rescued 4 youngsters and a baby before he went up to the dormitory that trapped the other students.
Those injured – four of which are in critical condition while three sustained minor injuries – are being treated at the Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
Most of the 45 students at the school are orphans and come from the state of Kelantan, the school’s deputy principal Roslan Awang Ali said (NST).
2. Possible causes of fire
Initial local media reported deputy director of the city’s fire and rescue department, Abu Obaidat bin Mohamad Saithalimat belief that the fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit (The Star). City police chief Amar Singh had said no foul play was suspected (Al Jazeera).
This was later dismissed by the fire chief Khirudin Drahman, who said the blaze could have been caused by mischief.
“It was not from a short circuit. If it was, the fire will need about 30 minutes to grow that big,” he told The Malaysian Insight, adding that this blaze spread very quickly.
State media Bernama also reported Khirudin as saying that reports from the forensic team and Energy Commission showed the school building’s main switch to be in good condition. He did not comment on the two cooking gas cylinders found at the school’s main entrance, saying they are still being investigated.
3. Why the kids could not escape
A lackadaisical attitude in complying with safety regulations could be the main cause the students could not escape from the ‘deathtrap’ which only had only had one exit and with metal grilles on its windows preventing escape, according to the city’s fire chief. The said dorm only had one exit and its windows had metal grilles.
Khirudin told The Malaysian Insight that there was an additional partition erected on the second floor of the building, which housed the ‘deathtrap’. This new layout did not get the approval of the fire department, a claim that the tahfiz school has denied (NST Online).
“The building was built by its original owner, who then surrendered it to the Federal Territory Religious Department (MAIWP) as a waqf (donation),” deputy principal Roslan said.
“MAIWP had given us permission to utilise this building for tahfiz activities, and when we needed to find someplace else while our complex is being renovated, our school used it as our temporary premises.
The original plan had two entry and exit points, Khirudin said, but the new partition prevented any chance of escape by the victims. Neither was there any fire extinguisher on the floor where the fatal incident happened.
4. This is not the first fire at tahfiz schools
As many as 211 fires at tahfiz schools have been reported nationwide from 2015 to 2017, statistics from the from the Fire and Rescue Department last month revealed. Since January this year, there have been 30 reported cases with losses totalling RM1.4 million, wrote The Malay Mail Online.
Commenting on this, fire chief Khirudin said tahfiz school operators or owners do not emphasise safety as they believe God would protect them. Yesterday’s fire was the 30th reported case involving tahfiz schools in recent years.
“That is why they take things such as safety lightly,” he said.
Former Prime Minister and now, opposition chairman, Dr Mahathir Mohamad recalled a similar incident at a religious school in the northern state of Kedah. The 1989 inferno had claimed 27 female students’ lives. However, the government and other stakeholders have yet to act on the recommendations from the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the decades-old tragedy, local academics claimed.
5. Will there be justice?
Putrajaya has announced that it will set up a panel to investigate the tragedy as well and standards and guidelines for tahfiz schools (The Malaysian Insight). Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi urged all religious schools to abide by safety regulations, but emphasised that this does not mean the government is interfering with the running of such schools (NST).
Zahid also pledged to take care of the welfare of the victims’ families, including bearing the funeral expenses and offering “all necessary support and assistance”.
Rights groups are calling for deeper inquiries into tahfiz schools, which have been under scrutiny after an 11-year-old boy died earlier this year from abuse by his tahfiz school warden. Most of these privately-run institutions have been accused of inadequate regulation and training.