Shock turns to outrage over school fire tragedy

By Abdul Wahab Bashir & Hasan Adawi
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2002-03-13 03:00

JEDDAH, 13 March — The Makkah school stampede that crashed to death 14 schoolgirls and injured 52 others has triggered an uproar in the country, with parents and the press blaming the Presidency of Girls’ Education (PGE) for its incompetence in failing to deal with the issues of inadequate safety procedures and overcrowding.

There were also calls for the resignation of the PGE’s president and other top officials. Parents and intellectuals across the Kingdom have demanded that officials must take full responsibility for the catastrophe.

The appalling incident has brought to the fore issues that have been bubbling below the surface for some time. The simple fact is that at most government schools for girls, directors and teachers — along with parents — have long been aware that inadequate safety facilities threatened the lives of both teachers and students. What is different now is that they are insisting that this matter be addressed by the authorities as a matter of priority.

The government has already launched an investigation into the fire and resulting stampede at the intermediate school in Makkah’s Hindawiya district.

None of the girls was killed by the fire itself. In the rush to get out of the four-story building, some threw themselves out of windows, while others were trampled to death on the stairs.

The fleeing students could not get out of the school compound quickly because the gatekeeper had locked it and then left his post, witnesses said.

The dead girls included nine Saudis, an Egyptian, a Guinean, a Chadian, a Nigerian and a girl from Niger. Certain officials said the fire broke out from an electric cooker, but relatives blamed it on an electric short circuit. There were 835 girl students and 55 teachers at the school at the time of the fire.

Al-Nadwah daily quoted one survivor as saying that while the girls were dying inside the locked gates of the school, the Civil Defense and the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice kept arguing outside over their respective jurisdiction. Some passersby rushed to the scene carrying water buckets only to be stopped by the Commission’s men, who did not want males to enter the school.

Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed, who visited the doomed school soon after the incident, said the condition of the building was too bad to house an school. He also promised that those who caused the accident will be given maximum punishment.

Preliminary investigation showed that the fire broke out from a tearoom inside the school. The sudden rush of students and teachers, frightened by the billowing smoke, caused the deaths and injuries, according to Maj. Gen. Saad Al-Tuwaijeri, director of Civil Defense.

Hussein Al-Jabiry, owner of the Makkah school building, said he had not received any information from the presidency regarding maintenance of the building. “We signed the contract with the presidency long time ago and I don’t remember the conditions regarding maintenance,” Al-Nadwah newspaper quoted him saying.

Most government schools lack emergency exits and fire-fighting facilities. Nor do they conduct drills for evacuation or rescue operations.

The girls’ school authorities also complain that there is no direct contact between them and the Civil Defense.

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