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Teen who set deadly dorm fire was mad about phone confiscation, prosecutors say

What was once a school’s dormitory in the Guyanese city of Mahdia became a barren landscape of charred concrete and ash after a blaze ripped through it on May 21. Twenty children perished in, or died after, the fire that began shortly before midnight.

Prosecutors say a 15-year-old student is responsible for starting the fire, alleging that in a fit of anger over her phone being confiscated, she lit a fire in the bathroom, the Associated Press reported. The girl, who hasn’t been publicly identified, was charged in adult court Monday with 19 counts of murder, according to the outlet. She has not yet entered a plea.

On Tuesday, the Guyanese government announced that a 14-year-old girl had died of her injuries at a hospital in Georgetown, the nation’s capital, increasing the death toll from 19 to 20. It’s unclear whether another charge will be filed against the teenage defendant.

The 15-year-old suspect was also injured in the fire. Following her recovery, she was taken into custody at the Juvenile Holding Center — from where she appeared virtually in a Monday hearing before Magistrate Sunil Scarce at Diamond Magistrates’ Court, the Guyana Chronicle reported. She’ll remain in custody until her next court appearance in July.

At least 19 children died in a fire that engulfed a school dormitory overnight in Guyana, authorities said May 22. (Video: Reuters)

The Mahdia Secondary School — located in a mountainous central town some 200 miles from the South American nation’s capital — was a government boarding school mostly serving students from remote Indigenous communities. On May 21, a Sunday, some 57 female students between the ages of 12 and 18 were inside bedrooms that had been locked by the dorm’s administrator to prevent them from sneaking out, according to the AP.

“She 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,” National Security Advisor Gerald Gouveia told the news agency.

Deadly Guyana school dormitory fire was deliberately set, official says

That night, investigators said, the 15-year-old sparked a fire in the facility’s bathroom — and it quickly began spreading, trapping other children inside burning rooms.

The dorm administrator tried desperately to find the keys to unlock the building, Gouveia said. Meanwhile, neighbors, some of whom heard the trapped children’s screams, raced to the scene. When firefighters arrived, the building was already “well engulfed,” Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland told reporters — forcing crews to smash through walls to rescue the people inside.

In the “wee hours of the morning,” 23 children were taken to hospitals in Mahdia and Georgetown for their injuries, the government said in a news release last week. Despite the rescue efforts, 14 children — 13 girls and the dorm administrator’s 5-year-old son — died inside the dorm, the release added.

Their remains couldn’t be “visually identified” after the fire, according to a government statement. It wasn’t until Friday that the government announced that DNA testing had been used to confirm their identities.

Six more children died in hospitals after battling severe injuries. One 13-year-old girl who was transferred to Northwell Health Burn Center in Staten Island is expected to recover after undergoing the first of multiple surgeries on Monday, the government said.

The tragedy rippled deeply in a country of some 800,000 people — where flags flew at half-staff throughout the three days of national mourning declared by President Irfaan Ali.

“This is a pain we must carry as a nation and as a family. It is a pain we must share together and support in our prayers,” Ali said in a statement.

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But the fire has also stoked tensions on social media, where questions about the conditions of the school have begun swirling. Last week, Ali announced his administration would be establishing “a commission of inquiry to investigate the causes and circumstances of the fire.”

Guyanan Education Minister Priya Manickchand said on Facebook that the mix of speculation and political finger-pointing was taking a toll on the victims’ families.

“Hold off on mouthing off on your opinions,” Manickchand wrote Monday. “You do not know better than these parents what is good for their children and families. Just like they won’t try to dictate for you, leave them alone to make their choices and grieve however they feel is best for them. Please.”


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