Investigators in Guyana allege that tragic dorm fire was set by disgruntled student over a confiscated phone

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On the evening of May 23, Mark Ramotar, who heads the Guyana Police Force's Corporate Communications Unit, announced the police would be seeking legal advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in relation to the Mahdia Secondary School dormitory fire that claimed 19 young lives. The file on the investigation, which alleges that a student started the fire in protest over her cellular phone being taken away, will be sent to the DPP’s office on May 24. There have also been suggestions, by National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia, that an older man who had been texting her may also face charges of statutory rape.

While some reports say the girl, who is around 14 or 15 years old, has admitted to arson, others claim she has not. One source told Agence France-Presse (AFP), “They took away the phone from the girl, and [she] threatened the same night that she will burn down the building and everybody heard her.” The blaze began in the bathrooms, where the teenager was thought to have sprayed insecticide on a curtain, then lit a match. The fire quickly spread through the building's wooden ceiling and soon, the whole place was ablaze.

As was the custom, the house mistress — whose young son also died in the fire — locked the girls into the dormitory for the night to prevent them from sneaking out. She later told the police that in her panic, she could not locate the front door key. The windows of the dorm were burglar-proofed, preventing escape, though some students, including the suspect, escaped after a door was broken down.

The official police report noted that there were 57 pupils in the dormitory at the time. Fourteen children died at the scene from smoke inhalation and burns; another five succumbed to their injuries at the hospital, and many more were severely injured. Of these, seven remain warded, with two in critical condition. In the aftermath of the incident, Guyana has been receiving medical and forensic support from both the Caribbean and international community.

While the fire chief maintains that his brigade took only four minutes to arrive at the scene once they were alerted, other reports claim they took as long as 25 minutes. Minister of Education Priya Manickchand has said that allegations of the dormitory lacking proper fire alarm systems were being investigated: “What must come of this is improvement across the sector.” The tragedy has prompted a review of similar facilities across the country, with some calling for major reform and a Commission of Enquiry.

Thus far, commentary on the issue has primarily focused on the political and institutional shortcomings that failed to protect the students, as opposed to the circumstances of the student who allegedly set the fire. One letter to the editor of Stabroek News suggested that the country should first bury its dead with dignity and respect, saying that the rest would follow in due course.

The regionally popular Instagram account Know Your Caribbean posted, “There are not enough to encompass what is the tragedy that has happened at the school in Guyana,” and called on its community to help in a substantive way: “[L]ots of social media shares come with talk of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ condolences to the families. These things are welcome, but not enough. Please stay tuned to see how we can rally around to support these families …” Some social media users, however, continued to apportion blame in various quarters.

As the country struggles to make sense of the tragedy, vigils for the victims are being held, and some of the deceased have begun to be laid to rest.

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