‘Deliberately set’ dormitory fire that killed 19 plunges Guyana into mourning

Screenshot of the remnants of the girls’ dormitory at Mahdia Secondary School in Guyana taken from AFP News Agency's YouTube video ‘Guyana: Burnt schoolgirls’ dormitory after fire kills 19.’

Shortly before midnight on May 21, in the girls’ dormitory of a secondary school in the mining town of Mahdia, Guyana, a fire broke out, claiming the lives of 19 young people. Most of the victims were students ranging in age from 12-17, who came from the surrounding Indigenous communities of Karisparu, El Paso, Micobie and Chenapao. One five-year-old boy, the son of the “dorm parents,” also died in the blaze.

Guyana's Minister of Education Priya Manickchand said on her Facebook page that the dormitory usually housed 59 students, but three of the girls had gone to spend the weekend with their families. Six other girls were seriously injured and remain warded at the Georgetown Public Hospital in the capital city, some 200 miles (320 km) north of the border town.

The relevant authorities are probing the cause of the fire. David Armogan, the chair of Region 6 where the town of Mahdia is located, noted in a Facebook update:

We received the report of the fire at 23:15 p.m. […] when firefighters arrived on the scene, the building was already completely engulfed in flames, resulting in [19] children losing their lives by the time it was extinguished.
Fourteen youths died at the scene, while five died at the Mahdia District Hospital.

Two children remain in critical condition, while four are nursing severe injuries as a result of the incident. These six [were] air-dashed to Georgetown for medical attention, while five remain admitted at the Mahdia hospital, and another ten are in observation.

Firefighters did manage to rescue some 20 students by breaking holes in the north-eastern wall of the building.

Our team is still on the ground investigating as we seek to provide clarity regarding how the fire started […] It is a sad day for Guyana.

Even as shocked relatives, and the country at large — tried to process the news, fingers began to be pointed on social media.

One post drew parallels with a March 3, 2016 fire at the Georgetown Prison, which resulted in the death of 17 prisoners. That fire was started by inmates in protest over their living conditions, but the post suggested that the school tragedy has created “another heavy emotional and psychological burden on a[n] already traumatized citizenry.”

Some shared photos of community protests calling for justice, compensation, and transparent investigations. Some of the placards criticised the fact that the dorms were burglar proofed without providing a fire escape route:

Other social media pages focused on fundraising drives for the bereaved families.

As members of the government were making visits to the affected families and mobilising mental health units to offer support, a “full-scale medical emergency action plan” was being put in place, and relief supplies were being dispatched to the town:

Regional leaders and international organisations alike soon began offering their condolences and support:

Caribbean citizens were deeply distressed by the news:

For one Jamaican Twitter user, the tragedy hit close to home:

In May 2009, a fire razed Jamaica's Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre for Girls; seven students were killed. The human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) has been speaking out against the withholding of documents related to the fire, and has sworn to advocate for the children in Jamaica’s state care system.

President of Guyana Irfaan Ali has given his assurances that “every conceivable help, every conceivable assistance, every conceivable action” will be taken in support of the families.

By May 22, Guyana's Department of Public Information revealed that investigations found the dormitory fire had been “maliciously set.” Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dwayne Scotland said that the fire started in the south-western end of the building.

Contrary to claims on social media of an inadequate response from fire services, Scotland maintained that his brigade took four minutes to arrive at the scene, upon which it began its firefighting and rescue operation. The building was already engulfed in flames, which took his officers three and a half hours to get under control.

Guyana has declared three days of national mourning in remembrance of those who lost their lives.

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