May 23, 2023 News
By Allyiah Allicock
Kaieteur News – Nineteen children – 18 of them school girls and one 5-year-old boy died Sunday night when fire swept through a heavily-grilled dormitory which housed students of the Mahdia Secondary School, Region Eight (Potaro Siparuni)
The fire resulted in the largest number of fatalities in the history of this country. Back in 2016, 17 prisoners were burnt death during a riot at the Camp Street Prison. The fire erupted around 23:00hrs on Sunday at the Mahdia Secondary School’s female dormitory. According to reports from the Guyana Fire Service (GFS), ranks received a call around 23:15hrs alerting them of the fire. The department said upon arrival at the scene, the entire dormitory was already completely engulfed in flames, resulting in the 19 children losing their lives by the time the fire was extinguished. Information reaching this publication revealed that of the 19 children, 14 children died at the scene, while five died at the Mahdia District Hospital. Among the casualties were twin sisters.
Kaieteur News understands that the dormitory- a flat concrete structure accommodated approximately 59 students who hailed from villages such as: Karisparu, El Paso, Micobie and Chenapou. At the time of the fire, 56 students were present while three girls had gone home for the weekend. Reports are, that apart from the 19 who perished, two children were initially admitted at the Mahdia District Hospital in critical conditions while four were admitted nursing severe injuries as a result of the incident. The Fire Service reported that these six persons were later medevaced to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) for further medical attention. While those were medevaced, five children were admitted at the Mahdia District Hospital, and another ten were placed in observation. The Fire Service also reported that firefighters managed to rescue some twenty students by breaking holes in the north-eastern wall of the building.
In its report, the Guyana Police Force (GPF) briefly stated that according to one of the female students, who managed to escape, she was awakened by screams and upon checking, she saw a fire in the bathroom area, which quickly spread to other parts of the building. In a press briefing on Monday afternoon, Deputy Fire Chief (ag) Dwayne Scotland confirmed that the fire which took approximately three and a half hours to be extinguished, was suspected to be that of arson. “The initial investigation by the fire service identified that the fire was maliciously set, also the point of origin was identified to the south western end of the building,” he explained.
Kaieteur News understands that the fire was allegedly set by one of the female students at the dormitory, who was reportedly upset after her cellphone was taken away prior to the incident by an administrator. The findings from the Fire Service have since been handed over to the police for further investigation. At the briefing too, Commissioner of Police (ag), Clifton Hicken assured that the investigation will be concluded in a swift manner. He said that while post mortem examinations have been conducted on six persons, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) testing will be done on 13 bodies that were burnt.
In addition to the six patients that were medevaced to the city hospital, on Monday afternoon, Kaieteur News learned that three more injured students were transported to the GPHC. In a press briefing earlier yesterday, the GPHC officials had reported that of the initial six patients that arrived, one child immediately went for a limb-saving surgery for her leg due to the severity of her burns. They are all being monitored closely. As investigation into the devastating fire continues, President Irfaan Ali; Prime Minister, Mark Phillips; Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand; Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai and other government officials are in Region Eight, assisting family members and residents on a way forward.
Meanwhile, scores of organizations and sister countries dispatched messages of condolences on the passing of the children. The Alliance For Change said it is deeply saddened and mourns the passing of the school girls. “The Leader and the entire Executive and membership express condolences and offer heartfelt support to the parents, relatives, and colleagues of those who passed. The nation’s immediate focus has to be on addressing the pain and suffering brought on by this tragedy. This is a national tragedy, and all of Guyana must join hearts and hands in national mourning and commiserations,” the AFC said. According to the party, immediately afterward, “our attention has to be put into finding out why a tragedy of this magnitude could have occurred and finding answers to the many questions that must be answered – why was there no means of escape?; why was the response of the Guyana Fire Service once again below the minimum standards expected?; where were the adult Supervisors and Dorm Mothers?; why was the fire bowser removed from Mahdia to Lethem?” The AFC said it expects and demands a full Commission of Inquiry into this tragedy, and for the inquiry to be extended, and recommendations made, for all places where students are accommodated nationwide. Our prayers and support go out to the grieving parents and relatives of the bereaved.
Mayor of Georgetown, Ubraj Narine said as he reflected on the tragedy, he cannot help but raise the question of development and equity in our country. “While we boast of the biggest budgets, we have failed to protect our children. These unfortunate events in Mahdia grieve me as a parent and as a leader.” The Mayor asked: “Why was there only one dorm mother to so many students?
Where was the security guard?; Where were the keys to the grill of the doors?
Where was the fire truck?; Where were the closest fire extinguishers?”
He said the tragedy warrants a Commission of Inquiry, which could provide answers in the shortest possible time to the parents and members of the public. “We must be confident that this tragedy will not happen at another school dormitory in Guyana. We must ensure that investment is made in our Indigenous communities to adequately respond to disasters. Our health care facilities must be developed equitably to give our indigenous citizens comparable medical treatment. We must provide safe and secure accommodation for our Indigenous students to facilitate their education and full contribution to the development of our nation,” the City Mayor said.
Leader of the Liberty and Justice Party, Lenox Shuman also extended its “sincere condolences to the families and friends of the deceased.
“There is no greater tragedy than to have your child leave this world before you. Such a tragic loss hits the heart of the nation and most notably, the Indigenous community. Indigenous peoples work tirelessly and against great odds to send their children to obtain a different education and such a loss is inexplicable. Education and Health as the most important issues in Indigenous communities were discussed extensively through our stint in Parliament with the Government, and many of those have found very receptive ears in His Excellency and his team,” Shuman said.
He added: “We are aware that prior to this tragedy, there was significant planning in process to inspect and upgrade all facilities to bring them all in line with the dorms located in Georgetown inclusive of equipment, fire drills, evacuation plans and emergency contingencies and it is most unfortunate that those plans could not have rolled out soon enough to prevent this heart wrenching tragedy. We call on the Government to swiftly investigate this matter and, if found to be a matter of malicious intent, that the perpetrator(s) be brought to justice in the swiftest of manners. We also call on the government to take the immediate action to ensure that this never occurs again by expeditiously implementing their plans to inspect all dormitories across the country and upgrading them with the utmost urgency. We would like to commend His Excellency in mandating that the Golden Arrowhead be flown at half-mast in recognition of this tragic loss to the First Peoples and the Nation and extend our gratitude for the support the government has committed to helping the bereaved families and those affected by this tragedy. We ask that the public respect the families’ right to privacy and give them room to grieve.”
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