An early morning fire at a private religious school in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur killed 23 people Thursday, most of them teenage boys.
Fire officials say the pre-dawn blaze at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah broke out in the top floor of the dormitory building where the students were sleeping. The victims — 21 boys between the ages of 13 and 17, and two adult teachers — were unable to escape because the only entrance to the sleeping quarters was blocked by the fire, and the windows were covered by iron grills.
Witnesses looked on helplessly as they heard the students screaming for help as the fire raged. Their bodies were later found huddled in two corners of the burned-out room.
Fire officials say they likely died of smoke inhalation.
Eighteen other residents in the school were rescued, with six of them hospitalized in critical condition.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials believe it was started by an electrical short circuit.
The Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah is one of hundreds of schools in Malaysia known as "tahfiz" where children study and memorize the Koran. Many of the schools are unregulated by the government.
The Star newspaper says the fire department has recorded 211 fires at tahfiz schools since 2015. Sixteen people escaped a fire at a tahfiz in northern Kedah state back in August. Religious schools have come under further scrutiny since an 11-year-old boy died after allegedly suffering abuse in the southern state of Johor.
The Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah had just submitted a request with city officials for fire safety approval for the building.