The fire that on Sunday night left at least 19 young people dead in a school residence in Guyana could have been intentional, authorities said.
“Preliminary investigations suggest” that the fire at a school dormitory in the small mining town of Mahdia “was maliciously set,” Guyana Police Commissioner Clifton Hicken said Monday at a joint press conference with the President Irfaan Ali, who declared three days of national mourning.
Possible culprits have not yet been determined, explained Hicken, who nevertheless told AFP that he expects results in the next 48 hours. The police chief explained that DNA tests will be carried out on the bodies and that six autopsies have already been carried out.
The fire occurred in the girls’ dormitory of the Mahdia student residence, in the center of this South American country, bordering Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname.
“We will continue by their side and support them in this very difficult moment,” Ali promised the relatives of the victims on “a very sad day” for “the history” of Guyana.
“This is a great catastrophe. It is terrible, painful,” the ruler lamented earlier.
“Fourteen youths died on the spot, while five died at the Mahdia district hospital,” the fire department said in a statement on Monday, after the government initially reported 20 deaths.
Six injured “were airlifted to Georgetown,” while “five others remain hospitalized in Mahdia and ten others are under observation,” the document added, noting that firefighters managed to “save about twenty students” after drilling through the wall of the building that had windows with security bars.
Health authorities report that 17 young people remained hospitalized at the end of Monday afternoon.
At the time of the disaster, 56 students were in the residence, although it was initially reported that there were 63.
Young people between the ages of 11 and 17 lived there, according to a source who accompanied the relief efforts and who requested anonymity. The building was consumed by flames. The roof, which was made of tin, collapsed and only the blackened walls were left standing.
About fifty people demonstrated in Chenapau, a nearby town where some of the victims are from. “We need compensation for our losses,” read one sign. “Window and door bars are for prisoners,” another banner read, referring to the conditions of the facility.
“The sheer pain, the agony, the trauma (…) Who will be responsible? What are we going to tell the parents?” asked Michael McGarrell, an activist with the Amerindian People’s Association (APA), an NGO often critical of the government for rights to land, gold mining and, most recently, the sale of carbon credits to the US oil company Hess.
McGarrell said she lost two nieces in the fire and has three other family members hospitalized.
Mahdia is located about 200 km south of Georgetown, in a region that was recently affected by heavy rainfall.
“We wholeheartedly stand with the families and relatives of those who have been affected by this tragedy,” said Natasha Singh-Lewis, an opposition MP. “We ask the authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into the causes of the fire and a detailed report of what really happened,” she added.
“We must understand how this horrible and fatal event came about and take all necessary steps to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”
The government of Venezuela, a country with which Guyana maintains a territorial dispute over the Essequibo, a vast jungle area rich in minerals and water reserves, regretted what happened.
“Venezuela deeply regrets the fire that occurred (…) we send heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased and wish a speedy recovery to the injured,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil wrote on Twitter.
A former Dutch and British colony, Guyana is a small, poor, English-speaking country with a population of 800,000. The nation has the largest per capita oil reserves in the world and expects rapid development in the coming years with the exploitation of these reserves.