Twenty-three people, mostly children, were killed Thursday by a blaze that tore through a Malaysian religious school, trapping them in a dormitory with metal grilles barring its windows.
Pupils and teachers inside the Islamic study centre in downtown Kuala Lumpur screamed for help as neighbours looked on helplessly.
Many of the bodies of the victims – who included 21 boys mostly in their teens – were found piled on top of one another, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to escape the inferno, which erupted before dawn.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was out within an hour but it wreaked terrible devastation. Pictures showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds in the students' sleeping quarters.
The accident will increase scrutiny of the religious schools known as tahfiz, where many Muslim Malaysians send their children to study the Koran but which are not regulated by education authorities and often operate illegally.
Norhayati Abdul Halim, who lives opposite the school, told AFP she heard screams as the morning call to prayer rang out.
"I thought there were people fighting," the 46-year-old said. "I opened the window to my house and I could see the school on fire – they cried for help but I couldn't do anything."
By the time firefighters arrived at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah school in the heart of the capital, "the screams had stopped", she added.
Officials said that the children were unable to escape the fire because the blaze blocked the only door to the top-floor dormitory and the windows were closed off with metal security grilles.
Fourteen students managed to get out, and seven are being treated in hospital.
"They escaped by breaking through a grille, and then jumping down, some of them came down holding onto (drain) pipes," said Health Minister S. Subramaniam.
Fire officials said they suspected the blaze – one of the deadliest in Malaysia for two decades – was caused by an electrical short circuit, or a mosquito repelling device.
Officials said the school was operating without the correct licences and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, during a visit to the centre, announced authorities had launched an investigation.
He said the premises had been only temporary but those running the school should nevertheless have followed safety requirements.
Controversial religious schools
Subramaniam said the bodies of 21 students and two staff members had been recovered, revising down an earlier official death toll of 24. The bodies, many severely burned, were being identified by DNA tests, he said.
Nik Azlan Nik Abdul Kadir, who lost a 12-year-old in the fire, hugged his sobbing wife outside the school, and said he had seen his son only the previous evening.
"He was in a jovial mood – he loved studying here," he told AFP, adding another of his sons had been "saved" as he had refused to attend the school for the past fortnight.
The accident will add to mounting concerns about the religious study centres.
They are already facing scrutiny in the wake of the death of an 11-year-old boy who had allegedly been beaten at one of the institutions last year.
Deputy Prime Minister Zahid said fire department records showed there had been 31 blazes at tahfiz since 2011.
The latest tragedy was "the consequence of the absence of enforcement, and the failure to abide by rules and regulations by the operators of the religious school", said Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist who promotes Islamic reform.
Religious schools are not "above the law. One should close down schools which do not abide by the rules", he added.
More than 60 percent of multicultural Malaysia's population of about 30 million are Muslim Malay, and the country is also home to substantial religious and ethnic minorities. – AFP