The 14-year-old student at the Mahdia Secondary School in Guyana set the dormitory ablaze after her phone was taken away when she was reprimanded for having an affair with an older man.
Officials believe that a deadly blaze at a school dormitory in Guyana was deliberately set by a student who was upset that her cellphone had been confiscated.
The fire, which killed 19 children, broke out on Sunday, May 21, at the Mahdia Secondary School, about 200 miles from the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. In a statement posted on Facebook, the Guyana Fire And Rescue Service wrote that the fire was “maliciously set” and began “in the southwestern interior of the building, in the lavatory area.”
Fifty-nine people were being housed in the dormitory. At the time of the fire, 56 female students were inside, as well as one five-year-old boy, with three students not inside at that moment. Rescue workers managed to save 38 of the students trapped inside by breaking holes in one wall of the building.
Unfortunately, they discovered after the fire was extinguished that 19 children had perished — including the five-year-old boy, who was the son of the dorm’s administrator.
The other 18 victims were Indigenous girls aged 12 to 18.
Of the 38 students rescued, six sustained severe injuries, some life-threatening, and had to be rushed to a hospital in Georgetown for treatment.
According to the Associated Press, the student suspected of starting the fire was among the six injured. She is 14 years old and her name is currently being withheld.
National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia said the student’s cellphone had been taken away by the dorm administrator as a reprimand for having an affair with an older man, who police are expected to charge with statutory rape. The student then allegedly threatened to set the dorm on fire.
The fire began shortly after the dorm administrator, or house mother, locked the wood and concrete building for the night to prevent the students from sneaking out.
“[The house mother] did this out of love for them. She felt she was forced to do so because many of them leave the building at night to socialize,” Gouveia said. “This is a very sad situation, but the state is going to work with the students and the families to provide all the support they need.”
Although the dormitory had five doors and plenty of windows, they were grilled with iron bars, preventing the girls from escaping.
“The house mother was asleep at the time inside the building but panicked and could not find the right keys to unlock the building from inside, but she made it out,” Gouveia said.
As CNN reported, officials were alerted to the fire at 10:15 p.m., but by the time they arrived the building was “completely” engulfed in flames. It took more than three hours to extinguish the blaze.
Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland said that the service could have rescued many more students if they had been made aware of the fire sooner.
“This is a major disaster. This is horrific, it’s painful. And many responses have to occur at the same time. So, we’re putting all of that in place,” Guyana’s President Mohamed Ifran Ali said at a press conference.
The Guyanese government has accepted offers from the United States to send experts and forensic teams to aid with the investigation and identify the remains of 13 of the 19 victims who died at the scene.
“Leaders from all over the world have been offering to help us at this time. They were calling and messaging President Ali while he was on the ground in Mahdia on Monday,” Gouveia said.
President Ali also declared three days of national morning in response to the fire, during which time the national flag was flown at half-staff “in honor of the children who lost their lives.”
“I ask that as a nation we utilize the next three days of prayers for these children, their families, and the community,” Ali said.
The Mahdia Secondary School is part of a larger government effort to improve the education of children in the country’s less-developed regions.
Most of the children who attended the school hailed from Indigenous communities outside Mahdia, a gold and diamond mining community, as well as Micobie, Chenapou, Karisparu, Campbelltown, El Paso, and villages in the North Pakaraimas.
In the words of President Ali, “This is the saddest day of my life as president.”
After reading about this tragic arson, read the story of the 32-year-old man who set his mother’s house on fire after an argument over Cheez-Its. Or, read about the Tokyo man who dressed as the Joker, stabbed a subway passenger, and set the train car on fire.