Guyana (254735)
Credit: Image by Ronny K from Pixabay

Not for the first time in recent years, a major fire has consumed a public building in the Caribbean Community headquarters nation of Guyana, killing more than a dozen people. This time, however, the victims are all schoolchildren between the ages of 12–18 years old.

Most were asleep late Sunday in dormitories at the Mahdia secondary school in the southwestern jungle and mountain community near the Brazilian border when the fire broke out, trapping dozens of students in concrete buildings secured by iron grills that limited them from escaping.

According to authorities, the fire at the school—which had been designed and built mostly for indigenous students living in villages far away from Mahdia—began just before midnight and burned for several hours. By the time it died down and the smoke cleared, with the help of the area fire service, at least 19 high school students were killed and at least seven were badly burned and rushed by air to the city, about 200 miles away—14 died at the scene, while five others succumbed at the nearby district hospital.

Fire service headquarters in the city said officers and residents rescued at least 20 other students by punching holes into the building, saving them from certain death. 

Students who live in villages beyond the mountains often return home only at the end of the academic term, while those from places closer to the gold and diamond mining town would visit parents and relatives at weekends. Police said keys to locked doors could not have been found in time to rescue those who perished. 

No one has so far been arrested or held responsible for this tragedy.

The deaths of the children have plunged this oil- and gas-rich republic of nearly a million people into deep mourning, reigniting a debate about whether iron grills should be used to secure buildings of this nature, especially those used to house restless youths with minimum adult supervision.

The latest disaster also brings back memories of a May 2016 fire at the maximum security Georgetown Prisons in the capital that killed 17 inmates and injured eight others. Back then, prisoners, protesting a slew of complaints from poor food to overcrowding to long delays in court trials, had set fire to mattresses in cells. Officers say the fire raged so badly out of control that there was little they could have done to rescue prisoners and that they were badly outnumbered at the facility that had housed 1,100 prisoners guarded by less than 70 officers. That was the worst prison inferno in living memory.

Government officials, including President Irfaan Ali and Prime Minister Mark Phillips, journeyed to Mahdia on Monday, hoping to get explanations about what exactly happened and to comfort grieving relatives and friends. Officials said they are extremely worried about parents who live outside mobile phone signal areas and might not hear of the news for a few days yet. 

The main opposition coalition said in a statement that is demanding “a thorough investigation into this horrific incident that has resulted in the loss of innocent young lives. In light of this tragedy, we wish to call on all to make this independence day (May 26) a day of mourning in solidarity and support with the families, friends, relatives, and the citizens of Mahdia.”

President Ali said in a statement that “we have lost beautiful souls in that fire. It was a big battle for us.”

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