A female student is suspected of starting a deadly school dormitory fire that killed 19 children in Guyana, after her cell phone was taken away by a dormitory teacher, according to local police.
The fire that engulfed Mahdia Secondary School’s female dormitory over the weekend killed 18 girls and a young boy, shocking the South American country.
Police and firefighting officials have previously said that they believed the fire could have been “maliciously set.”
“Police investigations so far into Sunday night’s deadly fire at Mahdia, which claimed the lives of 19 persons, reveal that a female student is suspected of having set the devastating fire because her cellular phone was taken away by the dorm’s mother and a teacher,” a police statement said Tuesday.
Officials were first alerted to the blaze at 10:15 p.m. local time on Sunday. Firefighters arrived to find the building already engulfed in flames, but were able to rescue around 20 students by breaking down part of the building’s north-eastern wall.
It took firefighters over three hours to control the blaze.
The fire began while students were asleep in the dormitory, where several were awakened by screams, the police statement said.
“They saw fire/smoke in the bathroom area, which quickly spread in the building, causing several students to receive burns to their bodies and smoke inhalation.”
At the time of the fire, there were 57 female students in the dormitory, described by police as a flat concrete building measuring about 100 feet by 40 feet, with barred windows.
Authorities did not elaborate on whether students had difficulty evacuating the building.
The school is at the center of the Guyanese government’s push to improve the education level in the less developed part of the country, and mostly served indigenous children.
The Amerindian Peoples Association [APA] said Monday that they were “heartbroken” by the news of the fire in a statement, adding that it “is important to note that while the secondary school is located in the township of Mahdia, it also housed students from indigenous communities from the wider area.”
Guyana’s President Mohamed Ifran Ali has declared three days of national mourning in response to the deadly fire.
Previous reporting by CNN’s Tara John, Sandi Sidhu, Xiaofei Xu, and Sahar Akbarzai