More than 20 people died in a dormitory fire at a Malaysian religious school in the early morning hours Thursday, trapping mostly young students behind barred windows, according to news reports citing local officials.
Police said smoke inhalation killed the majority of the victims at the Islamic boys' school in Kuala Lumpur: 21 students and two teachers, Reuters reports.
"The pupils all got locked in, and they couldn't escape and got burnt," Nadia Azalan, sister of a 13-year-old victim, told the wire service in tears from outside the building in the nation's capital city.
The fire broke out on the top floor of the three-story building around 5:40 a.m. local time, according to fire officials, the flames quickly engulfing the single exit on the upper floor.
Mohamad Arif Mawardi, 24, was asleep on a lower floor and told Reuters that people's cries alerted him to the blaze. "We wanted to help the others, but we couldn't because the fire was rampant," he said. "There was nothing we could do."
"I saw their little hands out of the grilled windows, crying for help," area resident Nurhayati Abdul Halim told local media as reported by The New York Times. "I could not do anything. The fire was too strong for me to do anything."
There were conflicting accounts of the victims' ages. Some news outlets cited police as saying the youngest was 13. But Malaysian news site Berita Harian said a 6-year-old boy was among the dead.
The Malaysian government is covering the funeral costs of the victims, reports The Star Online.
"We will take care of the process right up to their burials as our way of expressing our sympathies to the families," Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the Malaysian newspaper.
The boarding school, Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, is a tahfiz school, where students learn to memorize the Quran.
Such schools are unregulated by Malaysia's education ministry, falling instead under the religious department, reports Al-Jazeera. It says that there are more than 500 such schools registered in Malaysia but that many others may be unregistered.
According to Reuters, the deputy prime minister said at least 31 fires have been reported at tahfiz schools in the majority Muslim nation since 2011. But The Star Online, citing fire records, put the number at 211 fires in the past two years alone.
The newspaper says a special firefighter squad devoted to the schools will be expanded this year.