An overnight fire raced through a dormitory in Guyana, killing at least 19 students and injuring several others at a government boarding school serving remote, mostly Indigenous villages, authorities said Monday. Most of the victims were girls.
“This is a horrific incident. It's tragic. It's painful,” President Irfaan Ali said, adding that his government was mobilizing all possible resources to respond to the disaster and care for survivors.
The fire broke out about 10:50 pm Sunday in the dormitory building of a secondary school in the southwestern border town of Mahdia, a gold and diamond mining community about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of the capital, Georgetown, the government said in a statement.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the fire.
Nearly all the victims and those injured are girls, according to Dr. Vickita Nandan at Georgetown Hospital. A 5-year-old boy also is being treated.
Officials initially said 20 students were killed but later updated the toll to 19, with several others injured. National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia said the figure was revised after doctors revived a very critical patient that “everyone thought was dead.”
“When firefighters arrived on the scene, the building was already completely engulfed in flames,” Guyana's Fire Service said in a statement. “Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the relatives and friends of those young souls.”
The department said 14 students died at the scene and five others at a local hospital. Officials said two children remain in critical condition and four have severe injuries. Six students were flown to Georgetown for treatment, while five others remain at a hospital in Mahdia, with another 10 under observation.
“Firefighters did manage to rescue some 20 students by breaking holes in the northeastern wall of the building,” the department said. “Our team is still on the ground investigating as we seek to provide clarity regarding how the fire started and all other necessary information.”
The school serves mostly Indigenous children aged 12 through 18, Gouveia said. He said it was too early to speculate what might have caused the fire, adding that heavy thunderstorms in the area posed a challenge to those responding by air.
“It was a battle for us,” he said. “The pilots were very brave, very determined.”
He added that the government and emergency responders “made a gigantic effort” to save as many people as possible.
Ali said officials were contacting parents and mobilizing psychologists to help those affected by the fire.
“I cannot imagine the pain right now of the parents,” he said. “This is a major disaster.”
The opposition party, APNU+AFC, issued a statement saying it will seek a thorough investigation and thanked people in the small community for helping authorities rescue children who were trapped.
“We need to understand how this most horrific and deadly incident occurred and take all necessary measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again in the future,” opposition lawmaker Natasha Singh-Lewis said.