Student accused of setting deadly girls’ dormitory fire in Guyana

Sunday’s late-night inferno killed 19 people, many of whom were Indigenous students from rural parts of the country.

A shot of the inside of a dormitory in Mahdia, where flames have left the building gutted. Observers walk through the wreckage.
Firefighters had to punch holes through the walls of a dormitory in Mahdia, Guyana, to rescue students trapped inside during a fire [Guyana’s Department of Public Information/AP Photo]

Officials in Guyana have revealed that it was a student who allegedly sparked a deadly blaze that ripped through the dormitory of a girls’ boarding school, killing 19 people.

The fire, which occurred late Sunday night, was one of the deadliest in recent years for the South American country. Approximately nine people remain hospitalised, many in serious condition.

On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia told The Associated Press that the fire started with a teenage student who was upset at having her mobile phone confiscated after she was discovered to be having an affair with an older man.

Gouveia explained that the student, who is under the age of 16, lit the fire in the bathroom area of the dormitory. Leslie Ramsammy, an adviser to Guyana’s health ministry, confirmed that the suspect was being treated for burns at the hospital and is expected to be released into juvenile detention.

Gouveia added that the man allegedly involved in a relationship with the student is expected to face charges for statutory rape.

News of the suspect’s identification was echoed by the mayor of Mahdia, the gold-mining town where the boarding school is located. “I can confirm that the fire was started by a student,” Mayor David Adams told the news agency Reuters on Tuesday.

A man walks by the charred remains of a beige building without a roof and burned-out windows.
The aftermath of a fire that tore through a school dormitory in Mahdia, Guyana, is seen on May 22 [Guyana’s Department of Public Information/AP Photo]

Police had been treating the inferno as suspicious, after an initial investigation suggested it had been “maliciously set“.

Many of the victims were Indigenous girls between the ages of 12 to 18 who hailed from towns like Madhia, as well as villages including Micobie, Campbelltown and El Paso.

Five of the 19 killed died at the Mahdia District Hospital, while the others perished at the school itself. The youngest person killed was the dormitory caretaker’s five-year-old son.

Clifton Hicken, Guyana’s police commissioner, said that 13 bodies had been referred for DNA identification after being badly charred. Post-mortem examinations had been completed on the six others, he added.

In the wake of the blaze, President Irfaan Ali declared three days of national mourning. “This is a major disaster. This is horrific, it’s painful,” he said in a press release. He has since met with some of the parents of the dead.

The fire swiftly tore through the southwest part of the Mahdia Secondary School, located some 320km (200 miles) south of the capital Georgetown.

Gouveia, the national security adviser, said the dormitory had been locked for the night to ensure the students did not sneak out.

The caretaker was asleep as the fire swiftly grew, Gouveia explained, and when she was awakened, she panicked and struggled to find the right keys to open the door.

Guyana’s Fire and Rescue Service said it received a call at approximately 23:15 local time on Sunday (3:15 GMT Monday). “It took the firefighters four minutes to arrive at the scene,” a government press release explained. “However, the building was completely engulfed in flames.”

Firefighters were nonetheless able to save approximately 20 people by breaking holes into the walls of the building to pull students to safety.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies