Authorities: Teen Upset Over Phone Set Deadly Dorm Fire

19 victims at boarding school in Mahdia, Guyana, had been locked in for the night by house mother
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 24, 2023 7:55 AM CDT
Authorities: Teen Upset Over Phone Set Deadly Dorm Fire
In this photo, the burned dormitory of a secondary school is seen in Mahdia, Guyana, on Monday.   (Guyana's Department of Public Information via AP Photo)

Investigators in Guyana believe a fire that killed 19 people, mostly girls, trapped in a school dormitory was deliberately set by a student who was upset that her mobile phone had been confiscated, a top official said Tuesday. The suspect in the fire late Sunday, who's among the injured, had been disciplined by the dorm administrator for having an affair with an older man, national security adviser Gerald Gouveia said. The student allegedly threatened to torch the dorm and later set a fire in a bathroom area, Gouveia said, per the AP. The fire raced through the wood, concrete, and iron-grilled building after it had been locked for the night by the dorm administrator—or house mother—to prevent the girls from sneaking out, Gouveia said.

"She did this out of love for them," Gouveia said of the house mother locking the building. "She felt she was forced to do so because many of them leave the building at night to socialize. 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." The suspect, who's about 14, was burned in the fire and is in a local hospital. She's expected to be released from the hospital this week and held in juvenile detention until she's an adult, said an adviser to the health ministry. All but one of the victims were Indigenous girls ages 12 to 18, from remote villages served by the boarding school in Mahdia, a mining community near the border with Brazil. The remaining victim was the 5-year-old son of the house mother.

Many of the victims were trapped as the building burned, though firefighters were able to rescue people by breaking holes through one of the walls. "The house mother was asleep at the time inside the building [and] panicked and could not find the right keys to unlock the building from inside, but she made it out," Gouveia said. Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland said more lives could've been saved if the service had been informed of the blaze sooner. When firefighters arrived, local residents were unsuccessfully struggling to douse the blaze and evacuate people, he said. "The building was well engulfed," he noted. Many of the nine people hospitalized are in serious condition.

story continues below

Guyana's government has accepted offers from the US to send forensic and other expert teams to help with the investigation, Gouveia said. The government also was sending specialists in DNA identification to help identify remains of 13 of the 19 victims who died at the scene. Meanwhile, police were expected to charge the man who had the relationship with the student with statutory rape because she was under 16, Gouveia said. This week's dormitory fire outranked what had been the country's deadliest fire in recent times, when 17 inmates were killed at the main Georgetown prison in 2016. Angry over trial delays and overcrowding, some inmates set fire to the building, built to house 500 but containing 1,100, resulting in the deaths of 17 and severe injuries to about a dozen others.

(More Guyana stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.