KUALA LUMPUR – All Islamic religious schools must register with the authorities and follow safety requirements, said Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, after a blaze at a tahfiz centre that killed 24 people, reported the New Straits Times.
The religious school in Jalan Datuk Keramat, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur was gutted in an early morning fire on Thursday (Sept 14). According to the authorities, it had been operating without a licence and did not have a fire safety permit.
“The religious school did not have an operating licence from the local authorities,” said Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor. “The school also does not have any licence from the local religious authorities.”
The Star newspaper said Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz Centre was in the midst of applying for a fire safety permit. But it started its operations before the permit was approved by the Fire and Rescue Department.
Department Deputy Director-General (Operations) Datuk Soiman Jahid said the incident could have been avoided if the school had followed the local government regulations in applying for the proper permits.
“Based on our investigations, the school had not acquired a permit to begin its operations and it was applying for one,” he told reporters at the scene, according to The Star.
Initial investigations found that the victims “tried to escape through the windows but were stopped due to the fixed grilles on the windows”, he said, adding that the department would have advised the school to install hinged grilles.
Officials said the incident was one of the country’s worst fire disasters in years, said Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Tahfiz schools usually teach students between the ages of five and 18. Such schools are not regulated by the education ministry and fall under the purview of the religious department, according to Reuters.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was put out within an hour but not before it wreaked terrible devastation.
Fire department officials said 22 students – all boys aged between 13 and 17 – and two teachers were killed in the blaze.
The final death count is still being determined and investigations are ongoing, but the department suspects that a short circuit or a mosquito coil may have triggered the blaze.
Mr Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and rescue department, said it was one of the country’s worst fire tragedies in 20 years.
Photos published by local media showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds, as horrific accounts emerged of the youngsters trying to escape the school as it went up in flames, according to AFP.
The Star newspaper reported that people in the area who had woken for morning prayers heard cries for help and saw flames engulfing the top floor of the building, where children were sleeping in dorms.
“The children were desperately trying to escape the flames,” Minister Tengku Adnan said in a television interview. “There were metal grilles which prevented them from exiting the burning building.”
The New Straits Times reported that local residents tried to enter the school to rescue the students but could not get far due to the raging fire and thick smoke.
Mr Babul Amir, 21, said he tried to save a student who was trapped on the building’s second floor.
“I ran up the stairs after hearing screams for help, but I couldn’t go far because of the intense heat,” he told Berita Harian. “I saw two students lying motionless in their beds before firemen told me to get away.”
Mr Shahirman Shahril, 39, said he and several other residents told some of the trapped pupils to jump out of the windows, the New Straits Times reported.
“Their cries for help are still ringing in my ears. I’m very sad because I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Datuk Amar Singh Ishar Singh said the bodies were found at two locations on the third floor of the building which was occupied by 36 students, Bernama reported.
“Unfortunately there was only one entrance, so they could not escape. All the bodies were found lumped on one another,” he said.
He said the religious school only had one exit, the reason why most of the occupants were trapped and could not be saved. The fire was believed to have started at the exit.
The windows also did not have safety features that allowed for use during emergency, according to Bernama.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak yesterday expressed his condolences over the deaths.
“Innalillah. Very sad to read of the Tahfiz Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah fire and the loss of 20 lives. May their souls be blessed by Allah. Al-Fatihah,” Mr Najib tweeted. He is currently in Washington DC for a three-day working visit.
Local media reported that officials had recently raised fire safety concerns about such private schools.
The Star newspaper reported that the fire and rescue department had raised concerns about fire safety measures at unregistered and private tahfiz, and had recorded 211 fires at the institutions since 2015.
In August, 16 people including eight students fled an early morning fire at a family-run tahfiz in Baling, in the northern state of Kedah, the paper reported.
There were 519 tahfiz schools registered across the country as of April, but many more are believed to be unregistered, the paper said.
It said there was a major fire at a school in 1989 in the northern state of Kedah, which killed 27 female students.
In October last year, six people died in a fire that swept through the intensive care unit of a major hospital in the southern state of Johor.