Commission to probe deadly fire

The Youth Ministry's Juvenile Detention Center in east Georgetown, Guyana.
The Youth Ministry’s Juvenile Detention Center in east Georgetown, Guyana. Many fear that the heavy grill and limited escape plans in an emergency could lead to another tragedy despite recommendations for safety experts and the fire service to correct the old systems. 
Photo by Bert Wilkinson

Guyana’s government has announced plans to set up a commission of inquiry into Sunday night’s fire at an indigenous school girl’s dormitory near Brazil that killed 18 girls, a five-year-old boy and injured more than a dozen others even as state prosecutors work to bring charges against a suspect they think deliberately started the deadly blaze.

Addressing a muted and deliberately toned down 57th independence anniversary ceremony at the southwestern town of Lethem on the Brazilian border late Thursday, President Irfaan Ali said that a formal probe would be organized into the deadly fire at the Madhia Secondary School late Sunday that killed the 18 girls and the boy. Health ministry officials Friday said that the main Georgetown Hospital had treated up to 29 other students who had been trapped in the heavily, iron-grilled dorm when fire broke out at the school. Fire service and area residents said they had rescued more than 20 other students from the building. Officials also said that all five doors were locked shut from inside and grills installed on windows to prevent the girls, between ages 12-18 from sneaking out to socialize with adults in the gold and mining town about 200 miles from the city.

“We are also committed to the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the causes and circumstances of the fire which destroyed the dormitory and to inquire into related issues,” Ali said. “The findings of that inquiry will inform the way forward.” Ali did not say when the probe would start or what kind of experts will sit on the team, but the fire has sparked domestic and international outrage about security and safety measures at public places, schools, detention centers for juveniles and prisons among others. The main opposition coalition and other groups had demanded an inquiry, fearing that the absence of such could lead to similar tragedies.

The fire deaths were the worst since 17 inmates at the main Georgetown Prisons died after some inmates had lit mattresses and other materials back in 2016 to protest a string of woes from overcrowding to poor meals to trial delays.

As the country prepares for the probe, authorities are battling to provide counseling to family members and survivors, mainly of whom are inconsolable and weeping continuously. On Thursday, authorities reported on an attempted suicide case of a male student from another area who had complained that his girlfriend had perished in the blaze. He is receiving treatment for ingesting a poisonous substance in hospital.

Meanwhile, the state prosecutor’s office said Friday that it is working to bring charges against a female student who it said is the main suspect for starting the fire. Police and fire officials report that the girl had allegedly set fire to the building after her mobile phone was seized by the building matron or house mother to avoid her from making contact with adult males in the community. She has not cooperated with investigators but the security ministry says there might well be enough corroborating evidence to bring murder and arson charges against her.