KUALA LUMPUR: At least 23 people, most of them students, were killed in a fire that broke out early on Thursday morning (Sep 14) at a religious school in the Malaysian capital, officials said.
Of the 23 that died, 21 were students while two were staff members, authorities confirmed.
Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur's fire and rescue department, added that it was one of the worst fire tragedies in the country in 20 years.
The Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah school at Datuk Keramat caught fire at about 5.15am, according to the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said the victims' bodies were "totally burnt".
"Unfortunately there was only one entrance, so they could not escape," he said. "All the bodies were found lumped on one another."
A video that has gone viral online showed the third floor of the school in a blaze.
The blaze began in the sleeping quarters on the top floor of the three-storey school building, according to a statement from the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department.
Seven people were taken to a nearby hospital for injuries, while 11 others were rescued.
Some of those who escaped the fire were injured as they climbed through a side window and down unto the ground floor.
"CHILDREN WERE DESPERATELY TRYING TO ESCAPE"
Pictures in 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.
"The children were desperately trying to escape the flames," Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said in a television interview.
"There were metal grills which prevented them from exiting the burning building."
The bodies were moved to a morgue at around 11am, where families of the deceased were waiting.
In a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Health Minister Dr S. Subramaniam told media that the bodies of the deceased have been taken to the forensics department at Kuala Lumpur Hospital.
He added that "many" of the victims' burns were charred beyond recognition.
In a tweet at 9.43am, Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was saddened to hear of the lives lost in the fire.
SCHOOL HAD NO OPERATING LICENSE: MINISTER
Minister Tengku Adnan said the religious school, had been operating without a licence, while local media reported that officials had recently raised fire safety concerns about such private schools.
"The religious school did not have a operating licence from the local authorities," he said. "The school also does not have any licence from the local religious authorities."
He added: "There are many other religious schools (that operate illegally) in the country."
Tahfiz are religious schools where children study the Quran in Malaysia, where over 60 per cent of the population of about 30 million are Muslim. These schools typically comprise of students between the ages of five and 18.
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.
The Star also added there was a major fire at a school in 1989 in Kedah which killed 27 female students.
In October 2016, six people died in a fire that swept through the intensive care unit of a major hospital in the southern state of Johor.
Additional reporting by Melissa Goh and Sumisha Naidu