Guyana’s government will be getting help from the US and Caricom countries with the investigation of a fire overnight Monday that killed 19 mostly indigenous Patamona students at a school at a southwestern town near the country’s border with Brazil, officials said.
National Security Adviser Gerald Gouveia said the federal government is rushing in teams on to Guyana on Tuesday to help with the DNA identification of 13 of the 19 who died on the scene at the school when a fire that authorities said was maliciously set, raced through the boarding facility starting before midnight Sunday and burning into early Monday. DNA identification will help parents bring some form of closure to the mass deaths, allowing final rites to be administered after identification, officials said.
“We are also getting help from our neighbors in CARICOM with forensics. Leaders from all over the world have been offering to help us at this time. They were calling and messaging President Ali (Irfaan) while he was on the ground in Mahdia on Monday, “Gouveia told this publication early Tuesday. “The teams from the US will arrive today.” Mahdia is a gold and diamond mining town about 200 miles from the capital, Georgetown.
Gouveia confirmed statements from the police and fire services that the fire was maliciously set, explaining that the matron of the dormitory had on Sunday night seized the mobile phone of one of the students because she was known to be having a relationship with a much older man. Angry that her phone was temporarily confiscated, the unidentified student verbally threatened to torch the building and later made good on her threat by igniting the bathroom area at the south end of the concrete and wooden structure.
“The suspect actually survived the fire and is in hospital receiving treatment. The house mother (administrator) was asleep at the time inside the building but panicked and could not find the right keys to unlock the building from inside but she made it out. She also lost her five-year-old child in the fire. This is a very sad situation but the state is going to work with the students and the families to provide all the support they need. They are not on their own.” Police are expected to charge the male suspect with statutory rape for having an affair with a child under 16. Student ages range between 12-18. Gouveia said students were known to leave the building in the evening to socialize so the doors of the heavily, iron-grilled building were locked from inside. “The house mother did this to protect the students from older men. 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.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland said from Mahdia that lives could have been saved if the service had only been promptly informed of the blaze. He was adamant that the brigade with its single tender was summoned perhaps about 10 minutes after, while locals unsuccessfully struggled to douse the blaze and evacuate people on the inside. “So by the time we responded in under four minutes, the building was well engulfed,” he said.
The fire was the worst multiple deaths event since 17 prisoners were killed at the main Georgetown Prisons back in 2016. Angry over trial delays, poor means and overcrowding among other woes, some inmates set fire to the building, built to house 500 but containing 1,100, resulting in the deaths of the 17 and severe injuries to about a dozen others.