President Irfaan Ali has declared three days of national mourning as Guyana mourns the death of 19 school children who perished after a fire swept through a dormitory at the Mahdia Secondary School 100 miles south-west of Georgetown during the early hours of Monday.
Officials said that an estimated 57 children were housed in the dormitory and that the students were from the mountain villages of Chenapau, Karisparu, Micobie and El Paso.
They said 18 girls and one boy had died. At least 29 children were transported to the Mahdia District Hospital, where five died. Another child reportedly died on her way to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation.
In a nationwide broadcast, Ali said that the national flag will be flown at half-staff at all public buildings in honour of the children.
“I ask that as a nation we utilise the next three days as three days of prayers for these children, their families and the community,” President Ali said, describing today as one of the “saddest days” in his life.
“There are no words that can describe this magnitude of pain that our brothers and sisters are going through today…We wish this day had never occurred… 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,” he added.
President Ali said the government is seeking regional and international assistance to conduct DNA tests on several of the bodies to confirm their identities by matching their remains with their surviving relatives.
Acting Police Commissioner Clifton Hicken told a news conference that post-mortem examinations have already been conducted on six of the fire victims and that DNA testing will have to be carried out on at least 13 of the 19 victims.
He said the police investigations were continuing with regards to the cause of the blaze, amid media reports that it may have “maliciously started”. Many of the students found themselves trapped in the grilled facility as the door was reportedly locked from the outside.
President Ali told the nation that the authorities “have already mobilised dull counselling services for the children, their families and community members,”adding that family members have been told that they would receive “full unconditional, unhindered support” such as medical, social, counselling, financial and transportation services.
Ali said that “every conceivable action that is required of the government” will be taken , telling the parents of the children that “we want to assure you, all of you, that no efforts will be spared.
“Every conceivable help, every conceivable assistance, every conceivable action that is required of the Government we will do, we will support and we will ensure that we are with you not only today but through this difficult path ahead,” said Ali, who had earlier travelled to Mahdia, after spending several hours at the Eugene F. Correia International Airport where he coordinated an emergency plan of action.
The main opposition coalition, A Partnership for National Unity=Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) expressed its condolences to the families, relatives, friends, residents of Mahdia, “as we mourn the loss of lives of our children and to state that we are deeply saddened by the loss of lives.
“We wish all those that are injured a speedy recovery and express our support and gratitude to the medical team and others who are engaged in the process of treating and helping the injured and hope there are no more fatalities. Special appreciation and thanks to our brave pilots and the Joint Services who played and continue to play a key role in the entire operation.”
The coalition said that it would “continue to keep the situation under review and will make a full statement at a later time as we demand a thorough investigation into this horrific incident that has resulted in the loss of innocent young lives.
“In light of this tragedy, we wish to call on all to make this Independence Day a Day of Mourning in solidarity and support with the families, friends, relatives, the citizens of Mahdia and …a Day of Support to the injured, their families, friends, relatives and the people of Region 8.”