Boys 'cried from barred windows' as Islamic school blaze kills 23 in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 (Reuters) - A blaze at an Islamic boarding school in the Malaysian capital killed at least 23 people on Thursday, most of them teenage boys who cried for help from barred windows, officials and witnesses said.

The fire broke out at around 5.40 a.m. in a top-floor dormitory in the three-story building, firemen said, where most of the students were sleeping in bunk beds, with many of the windows covered by metal grills. One survivor said there was just one window the boys managed to open.

Two teachers were also killed in the fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a 15-minute drive from the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, police said, adding that most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.

The youngest was just seven, media said.

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Deadly fire at an Islamic boarding school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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Deadly fire at an Islamic boarding school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A view shows the second floor of religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 14: A resident show a pictures of among 24 religious student in religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah before a fire broke out early morning on his smartphone on September 14, 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A fire at a religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah had killed at least 24 people including their religious teacher. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
Media crowd outside religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Nik Azlan Nik Abdul Kadir (L), father of one of the victims comforts his wife outside the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school in Kuala Lumpur on September 14, 2017. Twenty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed on September 14 when a blaze tore through a Malaysian religious school, in what officials said was one of the country's worst fire disasters for years. / AFP PHOTO / SADIQ ASYRAF (Photo credit should read SADIQ ASYRAF/AFP/Getty Images)
A view shows the second floor of religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Family members wait for news of their loved ones outside religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
A Malaysian national flag flutters outside burnt windows of the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school in Kuala Lumpur on September 14, 2017. Twenty-five people, mostly teenage boys, were killed on September 14 when a blaze tore through a Malaysian religious school, in what officials said was one of the country's worst fire disasters for years. / AFP PHOTO / SADIQ ASYRAF (Photo credit should read SADIQ ASYRAF/AFP/Getty Images)
Family members wait for news of their loved ones outside religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 14: A Malaysia Civil Defence Force look at the listname on whiteboard of religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out on September 14, 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A fire at a religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah had killed at least 24 people including their religious teacher. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 14: A general view show the second floor of religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out on September 14, 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A fire at a religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah had killed at least 24 people including their religious teacher. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
A relative cries inside the forensics wing of the Hospital Kuala Lumpur, where the body of Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school victims are being kept in Kuala Lumpur on September 14, 2017. Twenty-three people, mostly children, were killed pn September 14 by a blaze that tore through a Malaysian religious school, trapping them in a dormitory with metal grilles barring its windows. / AFP PHOTO / SADIQ ASYRAF (Photo credit should read SADIQ ASYRAF/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 14: A general view show of the second floor of religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out on September 14, 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A fire at a religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah had killed at least 24 people including their religious teacher. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
Mohd Arif Mawardi, one of the survivors of the fire at religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, speaks to journalists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Malaysian Fire and Rescue personnel stand outside the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school in Kuala Lumpur on September 14, 2017. Twenty-five people, mostly teenage boys, were killed on September 14 when a blaze tore through a Malaysian religious school, in what officials said was one of the country's worst fire disasters for years. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICK LEE (Photo credit should read PATRICK LEE/AFP/Getty Images)
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The disaster has renewed calls for greater scrutiny of so-called "tahfiz" schools, where students learn to memorize the Quran. They are unregulated by the education ministry, being the responsibility of the religious department.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said at least 31 fires had been reported at such schools in Malaysia since 2011, adding that they must follow safety regulations.

"We will continue to carry out investigations, especially through forensics, as we found that there was some security features that should have been complied with but weren't," Zahid told reporters outside the school.

Fire department operations deputy director Soiman Jahid said the cause was likely a short circuit or a mosquito repellent coil.

The dormitory had only one entrance, leaving many of the victims trapped, he said.

"The building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside. The students, after realizing the fire and heavy smoke, tried to escape through the window," Soiman said outside the school.

"But because of the grills, they could not escape."

Soiman said the school had submitted a request for fire safety approval but no new checks had been carried out as the request was still being processed.

"The pupils all got locked in and they couldn't escape and got burnt," Nadia Azalan, sister of a 13-year-old victim, told Reuters in tears as distraught family members gathered outside the building. "Safety should come first."

Mohamad Arif Mawardi, 24, who was sleeping on one of the lower floors, said he realized there was a fire only after he heard people shouting.

"We wanted to help the others but we couldn't because the fire was rampant. There was nothing we could do," he said.

About 13 boys managed to open a window and escape, Arif said.

"Only those 13 who had access to that open window could escape," he said.

A man identified only as Hazin, who lived next door to the school, said his son called the fire department after they heard screams and saw the flames.

"The children were crying for help, but I couldn't help them as the door was already on fire," he said.

Viewed from outside, the only tell-tale signs of disaster were the blackened upper-floor windows, otherwise the tin-roofed building appeared unscathed, with a Malaysian flag hanging limply from the yellow wall.

Only inside did the intensity of the inferno become clear. The dormitory was blackened, lined with the charred frames of bunk beds.

Tahfiz schools have been under scrutiny since earlier this year when an 11-year-old boy died after reported abuse in Johor, north of Singapore.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Sipalan, Liz Lee and Tavleen Tarrant; Editing by Praveen Menon and Nick Macfie)

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