KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian authorities on Friday (Sep 15) buried victims of a fire that killed 23 boys and teachers at an Islamic school, a disaster that sparked anger and prompted calls for better regulation of controversial religious study centres.
The blaze erupted in the boarding school in downtown Kuala Lumpur before dawn Thursday. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within an hour, but not before it had gutted the facility's top-floor dormitory.
Horrific accounts emerged of students screaming in desperation because they were unable to escape the inferno as the dormitory's only door was on fire and metal security grilles barred the windows.
Rescuers found the bodies of 21 schoolboys and two teachers in piles, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to flee the fire, the country's worst for two decades.
Eleven of the schoolboys were buried at the Raudhatul Sakinah cemetery on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Friday, where a 1,000-strong crowd of mourners watched in sombre silence as the victims were lowered into graves in a traditional Muslim ceremony.
The first to be buried was 10-year-old Mohamad Aidil Aqmal, whose family sprinkled scented water onto his grave after he was lowered into it.
His grandfather, Zakaria Darus, said he was a "charming little kid" and his death was like a heavy blow to the head. "I just can't believe he has died, I will miss his company," he told AFP.
Four other victims were buried at another cemetery in the capital, while others were being sent to their hometowns across the country to be laid to rest.
The victims consisted of 21 children aged between six and 16, and two male teachers aged 25 and 26, according to a list of victims released to local media.
Their bodies were released to their families Friday after a long process of identifying the badly-burnt remains using DNA tests, and final prayers were said for the victims at a Kuala Lumpur hospital.
Some of the children did manage to escape by breaking through a grille and jumping out or sliding down drain pipes. A handful are still in hospital.
CONTROVERSIAL RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS
Police initially believed the fire was an accident caused by an electrical short circuit or a mosquito-repelling device but said Friday they were not ruling out foul play.
They are examining accounts that two gas cylinders that were left by the dormitory door caught fire and prevented people from leaving.
The blaze has sparked outrage and focused attention on religious schools in Malaysia, where many Muslims send their children to study the Quran, but which are not regulated by the education ministry.
The school involved in Thursday's fire, known as a tahfiz, did not have the necessary operating licences, including a fire safety permit.
The Star newspaper, citing data from the fire department, said there were 1,034 blazes at registered and unregistered religious schools between 2015 and August 2017, with 211 destroyed.
"(Islamic schools) must comply with the rules or else they cannot operate, especially when they house such young children," Hatta Ramli, an opposition lawmaker from Islamic party Amanah, told AFP. "The risk of fires or other disasters is there."
About 60 per cent of Malaysia's population of over 30 million are Muslim Malays, and the country is also home to substantial ethnic and religious minorities.