Malaysia fire blocks lone exit to Islamic dormitory; 23 dead

Unidentified Muslim hug each other outside an Islamic religious school following a fire on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The official said the fire, which killed people, mostly teenagers, started early Thursday at the top floor of the three-story building. (AP Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A fire that blocked the only exit to an Islamic school dormitory killed 23 people, mostly teenagers, on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital early today, officials said. A government official said a wall separating the victims from a second exit “shouldn’t have been there.”

Firefighters and witnesses described scenes of horror — first of boys screaming for help behind barred windows as neighbors watched helplessly, and later of burned bodies huddled in a corner of the room. Islamic teacher Arif Mawardy said he woke up to what he thought was a thunderstorm, only to realize it was the sound of people screaming.

Firefighters rushed to the scene after receiving a distress call at 5:41 a.m. and took an hour to put out the blaze, which started on the top floor of the three-story building, Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said.

Singh revised the death toll, saying there were 23 charred bodies instead of 24 — 21 of them boys between 13 and 17, and two teachers.

“We believe (they died of) suffocation … the bodies were totally burnt,” he said. Singh said 14 other students and four teachers were rescued.

Health Minister S. Subramaniam said six other students and a resident who went to help were hospitalized, with four of them in critical condition.

The fire broke out near the only door to the boys’ dormitory, trapping the victims since the windows were barred, fire department senior official Abu Obaidat Mohamad Saithalimat said. He said the cause was believed to be an electrical short-circuit, though Singh said the investigation was continuing.