At least 19 children died in a “horrific” school dormitory fire in Guyana, which has shocked the nation and led to its president to declare three days of national mourning.
The fire that engulfed Mahdia Secondary School’s female dormitory killed 18 girls and a boy, according to Guyana’s Department of Public Information (DPI), revising down its earlier death toll of 20.
Thirteen girls and a little boy died at the dorms, and five others in the hospital, the DPI said.
Both police and firefighting officials say the fire was “maliciously set.” At the time of the blaze, it was reported that 56 children were staying in a dorm – a concrete and wooden structure with five doors and grill windows, a police spokesperson said during a press conference.
“Initial investigation suggests, as reported by the fire department, that it (the fire) was maliciously set. Our investigation is continuing, and tests will be done expeditiously on the remaining bodies,” the spokesperson said.
DPI did not report on the total number of injured from the fire but reported that “of those injured, six children were medevacked to Georgetown in the wee hours of the morning, while 17 are in the Mahdia Hospital.”
Officials were first alerted to the blaze at 10:15 p.m. local time on Sunday, according to the police spokesperson.
“The point of origin was identified as the southwestern end of the building. After we completed our initial investigation, the scene was handed over to the Mahdia police force,”a firefighter department spokesperson said at the same press conference on Monday.
When firefighters arrived at the dormitory, the building was already engulfed in flames “completely,” according to an earlier statement. Firefighters rescued around 20 students “by breaking holes in the north-eastern wall of the building.”
It took firefighters over three hours to control the blaze.
The Mahdia Secondary School Dormitory, where the fire happened, is at the center of the Guyanese government’s push to improve the education level in the less developed part of the country. lt mostly served indigenous children, although authorities couldn’t immediately confirm if any of the children who were killed were from indigenous communities.
The Amerindian Peoples Association [APA] said they were “heartbroken” by the news of the fire in a statement, adding that it “is important to note that while the secondary school is located in the township of Mahdia, it also housed students from indigenous communities from the wider area.
“The dormitory was housing for students from villages outside of Mahdia and thus far, victims have been identified from the indigenous communities of Micobie, Chenapou and Karisparu,” the statement said.
Guyana’s President Mohamed Ifran Ali said earlier that the students not only hailed from Mahdia, but also came from the villages of Campbelltown, Micobie, El Paso, and several other villages in the North Pakaraimas.
Children who require immediate medical attention will receive it, according to a statement from Guyana’s president. and all other individuals who remain injured and traumatized will be given with medical and psychological assistance.
The Guyanese government earlier mobilized a “full-scale medical evacuation-supported response” after the fire broke out.
In an initial statement, the government said the “Cabinet is being briefed and kept updated on a horrific fire at the dormitory in Mahdia.” Bad weather had complicated the early response, the statement added.
Authorities are attempting to locate some of the victims’ parents, Ali said. “This is a major disaster. This is horrific, it’s painful. And many responses have to occur at the same time. So, we’re putting all of that in place,” Ali said at a press conference on Monday morning.
Ali alongside other ministers had visited students and families on Monday, according to a press release.
He also declared three days of national mourning in response to the deadly fire, DPI said, when the national flag will be flown “at half-staff at all public buildings in honor of the children who lost their lives,” Ali said.
“I ask that as a nation we utilize the next three days as three days of prayers for these children, their families, and the community,” Ali said according to DPI.
Guyana is a multi-ethnic, English speaking country, where Amerindians make up 11 percent of the country’s population, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.
Indo-Guyanese are 40 percent of the population, followed by Afro-Guyanese, those who are ethnically mixed (20 percent) and Amerindian, it added.
CNN’s Stefano Pozzebon contributed to this report.