MAKKAH, 12 March — Fourteen Saudi and expatriate schoolgirls died in a stampede here yesterday as they tried to escape from their school after a fire broke out, the Presidency for Girls’ Education said.
More than 50 girls were injured, but many were discharged from hospital after receiving treatment, a security official told Arab News.
“No one was burned to death. The girls rushed to the gate to escape, and the victims were trampled on,” the official added.
Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed visited the wounded girls at King Abdul Aziz Hospital and later inspected the school. The governor has set up a committee to probe the incident.
The dead girls were buried at the Moalla graveyard in Makkah after Maghreb prayers. Medical sources said that the condition of seven injured girls was serious and one of them was in the intensive care unit due to head injuries.
The dead schoolgirls included nine Saudis, an Egyptian, a Guinean, a Chadian, a Nigerian and a girl from Niger.
According to eyewitnesses, the main gate of the intermediate school, located in the Hindawiya District, could not be opened immediately because the key was with the male guard, who was away.
The official Saudi Press Agency said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit.
Relatives said that the school — a three-story building — was overcrowded and lacked proper safety facilities.
This is the second time fires have broken out at the school’s rented building.
The presidency had asked the school to dispense with the old building, which has been rented by the school since 1990 paying SR250,000 annually.
The fire broke out during the first period at 8 a.m. yesterday from a cooker on the third floor, according to Maj. Gen. Saad Al-Tuwaijeri, director of civil defense. But people in the neighborhood and parents blamed an electric short circuit from a stove in the tearoom.
“It was a small fire. But seeing the billowing smoke, the girls got frightened and rushed together to get out of the building. The deaths and injuries were caused by the stampede,” Tuwaijeri told Arab News. He said that 12 of the injured girls have already left hospital after receiving treatment.
Dr. Ali Al-Murshid, head of the presidency, in his press statement did not mention the reason for the fire, but pledged that his department will investigate the incident.
A number of female teachers at the school told Arab News that the old building was not suitable for housing a school. They added that no teacher was among the injured.
An Arab News team which visited the school yesterday found a large number of abayas (black gowns), shoes and bags left by the girls in the rush to get out of the building following the fire. There were a total of 757 students at the time of the incident.
Firefighters reached at the school soon after receiving the news. Four firefighting units and three rescue teams took part in the rescue operation. The evacuation of the school took some 30 minutes, one civil defense official said.
Arab News found the staircase of the school building broken due to sudden rush of students and teachers. Parents have called for an investigation into the authorities’ failure to shift the school to a suitable building.