At least 19 children died in a “horrific” school dormitory fire in Guyana, which has shocked the nation and led to its president to declare three days of national mourning.

The fire that engulfed Mahdia Secondary School’s female dormitory killed 18 girls and a boy, according to Guyana’s Department of Public Information (DPI), revising down its earlier death toll of 20.

Thirteen girls and a little boy died at the dorms, and five others in the hospital, the DPI said.

Both police and firefighting officials say the fire was “maliciously set.” At the time of the blaze, it was reported that 56 children were staying in a dorm – a concrete and wooden structure with five doors and grill windows, a police spokesperson said during a press conference.

“Initial investigation suggests, as reported by the fire department, that it (the fire) was maliciously set. Our investigation is continuing, and tests will be done expeditiously on the remaining bodies,” the spokesperson said.

DPI did not report on the total number of injured from the fire but reported that “of those injured, six children were medevacked to Georgetown in the wee hours of the morning, while 17 are in the Mahdia Hospital.”

Officials were first alerted to the blaze at 10:15 p.m. local time on Sunday, according to the police spokesperson.

“The point of origin was identified as the southwestern end of the building. After we completed our initial investigation, the scene was handed over to the Mahdia police force,” a firefighter department spokesperson said at the same press conference on Monday.

When firefighters arrived at the dormitory, the building was already engulfed in flames “completely,” according to an earlier statement. Firefighters rescued around 20 students “by breaking holes in the north-eastern wall of the building.”

It took firefighters over three hours to control the blaze.

Indigenous victims

The Mahdia Secondary School Dormitory, where the fire happened, is at the center of the Guyanese government’s push to improve the education level in the less developed part of the country. lt mostly served indigenous children, although authorities couldn’t immediately confirm if any of the children who were killed were from indigenous communities.

The Amerindian Peoples Association [APA] said they were “heartbroken” by the news of the fire in a statement, adding that it “is important to note that while the secondary school is located in the township of Mahdia, it also housed students from indigenous communities from the wider area.

“The dormitory was housing for students from villages outside of Mahdia and thus far, victims have been identified from the indigenous communities of Micobie, Chenapou and Karisparu,” the statement said.

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