At least 19 children have died in a fire that broke out in a dormitory at a school in central Guyana that largely served nearby Indigenous communities, the South American nation’s government says.
The fire broke out in a secondary school early on Monday in the gold-mining town of Mahdia in the Potaro-Siparuni district, 320km (200 miles) south of the capital, Georgetown. The school served children aged 12 through 18, and Mark Ramotar, the director of the police communications department, said most of the victims were Indigenous.
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The government initially put the death toll at 20, but later revised their count down to 19. National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia said the figure was changed after doctors revived a badly injured victim who “everyone thought was dead”.
“When firefighters arrived on the scene, the building was already completely engulfed in flames,” Guyana’s Fire Service said in a statement.
Local newspaper Stabroek News reported that the fire was in a girls dormitory.
The fire department said 14 students died at the scene and five died at a hospital, where two remain in critical condition and four have severe injuries. Six students were flown to a hospital in Georgetown, and five were being treated at the hospital in Mahdia.
The department said firefighters were able to rescue about 20 students after breaking through walls of the school. The cause of the fire is being investigated, it said.
At lease 20 children lost their lives in a late night fire at a school dorm in the gold mining town of Mahdia in Guyana pic.twitter.com/Aen0ADF6eP
— Gordon Moseley 🇬🇾 (@gomoseley) May 22, 2023
There have also been reports that difficult weather may have complicated assistance efforts with Gouveia saying strong thunderstorms complicated the task of pilots trying to respond.
Denis Chabrol, a journalist in Guyana, told Al Jazeera in a TV interview that bad weather hampered flights for injured children out of the area for medical treatment. He also said contacting the families of those killed or injured could be difficult because the school catered to children from communities in the region that are sometimes difficult to access.
“Emergency responders and government officials will have to contact the parents and guardians of the children who perished and were injured,” Chabrol said. “It’s going to be a really challenging time for the officials to actually communicate with the parents and guardians of those who are affected by this fire.”
President Irfaan Ali called the tragedy “horrible” and “painful”, and the APNU+AFC opposition party said in a statement that it would seek a thorough investigation.
“We need to understand how this most horrific and deadly incident occurred and take all necessary measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again in the future,” said opposition member of parliament Natasha Singh-Lewis.