Police in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have arrested seven boys, all between the ages of 11 and 18, in connection to a fire that enveloped a religious boarding school and killed 23 people, including 21 students.
The deadly fire sparked in the all-boys Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah “tahfiz” school. The flames blocked the only exit students and teachers in the first-floor dormitory had. The students on the floor were between the ages of 6 and 17.
The blaze is being counted as the worst in at least two decades. Officials initially suspected the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, but have now confirmed it was ignited with the help of two cooking gas tanks that were brought up to the first floor.
The fire spread rapidly and took an hour to be extinguished by the firefighters. Witnesses recalled the nightmare scenario that unfolded, first as the trapped children and adults yelled for help and tried in vain to escape, and then as their charred bodies were found in the ruins.
The dead bodies were identified through DNA tests and sent to the families. Hundreds gathered outside a cemetery near Kuala Lumpur to mourn the boys as they were being lowered into graves.
All burials were sponsored by the state authorities.
The case has been classified under murder and mischief by fire, said Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Amar Singh.
"From our investigation, the motive behind the mischief was due to a misunderstanding after the suspects and some tahfiz students mocked each other a few days before the fire," he said during a televised news conference.
Singh added out of the seven students arrested, six had tested positive for drugs. Out of the two that had been detained before, one was arrested for vehicle theft and the other for rioting.
All of them were school dropouts.
But the boys are not the only one to be investigated in the aftermath.
The school was reportedly running without a fire safety permit and license. Additionally, an illegal wall had blocked access to the second exit. Other private and religious schools in the country have also come under scrutiny with many calling for more stringent regulations.
Although 500 “tahfiz” schools are known to function in Malaysia, many more are unregistered.
In the past two years, 1,083 fires have struck religious schools.
Banner / Thumbnail : Reuters, Lai Seng Sin