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Mahdia tragedy was a ‘’disaster waiting to happen” – CoI counsel – Guyana Times

– says authroities clearly disregarded reports on deficiencies of dormitory

– lauds Govt’s response, support for affected families

By Rupa Seenaraine

Unleashing total terror and claiming the lives of 20 children back in May, the Mahdia Tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen – a deduction drawn after it was found that reports of the dormitory’s condition and need for intervention were overlooked by authorities.

The Commission of Inquiry panel comprising of NTC Chairman Derrick John, Major General Joseph Singh and Attorney at Law Kim Kyte

In his closing submission on Thursday, this was the stance taken by Counsel to the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the Mahdia dormitory fire, Keoma Griffith.
Griffith referenced the inspection carried out by Officer-in-Charge at the Mahdia Fire Station, Ryan Scott on the building back in February 2023. The findings were submitted to the Chief Fire Officer, Gregory Wickham and Regional Education Officer (REdO), Annesta Douglas.
This report drew attention to the preparedness of both the male and female dormitories in the eventuality of a fire and flagged that there were no fire alarm systems, no fire detection systems, no exit signs, grilled windows, and only three fire extinguishers.
He had also informed the Guyana Fire Service of the need for upgrades to the fire truck, and that the fire station was ill-equipped to respond to fires. In the aftermath report, the unfulfillment of these recommendations was listed as a hindrance in effectively saving the lives of those trapped in the burning structure.

“It is my view that the problems in the after report of sub-officer Ryan Scott after the fire were the very same issues identified by Ryan Scott in their reports…It’s as if it was a disaster waiting to happen because Ryan Scott had been telling them all along these are the issues affecting the Mahdia fire station, recommendations that need to be put in place in the interest of saving lives and preserving property. Yet, there was no response.”
Among the 12 recommendations following the building’s inspection were a suitable fire alarm system, fire exits that open outwards, suitable signs, precise instructions in the event of a fire, proper storage facilities, installation of hydrants, the grills to be removed from all windows and training for staffers.
However, the Counsel reasoned that this urgent report saw little action from the level of the Regional Department, as well as the leadership of the GFS.

“This report should have been taken seriously, that required urgent attention and that no effort and the spirit in the implementation of all of the relevant requirements and recommendations contained therein.”
“The Chief Fire Officer told this Commission that according to the standard operating procedures of the GFS, his only urgent response to this urgent report and to ensure the recommendations were complied with was to ensure that the REDO was in receipt of the report. And I try to wrap my head around this response because I could not believe this response was coming from the Chief Fire Officer of this country,” he positioned.
While the Education Ministry is responsible for policies and the curriculum, the responsibility for staff, welfare, and the well-being of students, and the management and maintenance of the dormitories fall within the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development. This is executed under the Regional Democratic Office.
The Commission had heard that the Regional Education Officer received this report but never read it until she found herself in the witness box to testify.

The CoI panel will also be considering the 2017 Commission of Inquiry into the state of the education sector, which had placed high emphasis on the ‘deplorable state’ of dormitories in Guyana. It had made recommendations for the government of the day, the APNU/AFC coalition, to address these circumstances immediately.
Among the observations was that attention had to be given to the level and quality of supervision in the dorm as it was reported that the dorm parents were ‘overwhelmed’ and not properly trained.
“What happened with the report? The report, we heard, was submitted to the Minister of Education sometime in 2017. What happened following the report? According to the account of the [Chief Education Officer], nothing was done by the Government at the time to implement the recommendations,” Griffith told the CoI.

Another report, initiated by the Priya Manickchand-led Education Ministry and executed by UNICEF titled: “The Gender Sensitive Standards for Dormitory Schools” also analyzed these facilities in 2022.
Ranking the 24 dormitories based on priority, Mahdia dormitory was not within the top five for requiring the most essential action.
Cabinet responded to the report by allotting some $882 million of the $3 billion – a cost which would ensure full compliance with the recommendations. Griffith underscored that from evidence tendered, the report was submitted outside of the budget period and these funds could not just easily be sourced.
“The CEO said that immediately following, Cabinet took a decision to comply, as far as it was practicable and possible with the recommendations of the report. In so doing, $882 million was expended by the government to comply with the report.”

Concerted effort
As it relates to emergency response and intervention, the Commission’s Counsel highlighted that the Government displayed concerted efforts to provide key assistance and support to grieving families, the injured, survivors, responders, and members of the community among other categories.
The efficient and dedicated response of the agencies under the Human Services and Social Security Ministry, Education Ministry, Finance Ministry, Legal Affairs Ministry, and Office of the President.
“Based on all the evidence, there was a frontal approach and involvement in senior and junior ministers of the Government including the President, Dr Irfaan Ali. From all indications, the evidence before this commission shows that these functioning officials showed their human and caring side and above all others, the care and welfare of all those involved was most important.”
As it relates to the medical response of the government, it was noted that this was a well-planned operation, utilizing medical professionals of the highest standard and international support. Intermediate and long-term follow-up plans and support were established and opportunities for training and local staff were provided.
In terms of financial assistance, the Government has provided $5 million for the families of the deceased, $3 million for those who were severely injured, and $500,000 for others who suffered minor injuries. It is for the Commission to now determine whether these sums disaggregated were sufficient.

The May 21, inferno, which caught the attention of international media, resulted in the deaths of 19 female students between the ages of 12 and 17 and a five-year-old boy, who was the son of the dorm parents.
The dormitory housed students from the communities of Karisparu, El Paso, Micobie, and Chenapao, Region Eight (Potaro-Siparuni).
At the time of the fire, there were 56 females and a five-year-old boy inside. The remaining students had gone home for the weekend. The dormitory’s 26 windows were heavily grilled and the five doors were locked when the fire broke out.
According to the surviving female students, they were awakened from sleep by screams, and upon checking, they saw fire and smoke in the bathroom area. This quickly spread in the building, causing several students to receive burns to their bodies and to suffer from smoke inhalation, while several managed to escape. Several girls were air-dashed to Georgetown hours after for emergency treatment. One of them was later sent to New York at a specialized burn care facility for treatment owing to the severity of her condition.
A 15-year-old girl was charged in June with 20 counts of murder for the arson. She has since been detained at a Juvenile Holding facility. She was charged with the murders of Tracil Thomas; Lisa Roberts; Delicia Edwards; Lorita Williams; Natalie Bellarmine; Arriana Edwards; Cleoma Simon; Subrina John; Martha Dandrade; Loreen Evans; Belnisa Evans; Mary Dandrade; Omerfia Edwin; Nickleen Robinson; Sherina Daniels; Eulander Carter; Andrea Roberts; Bibi Rita Jeffrey, and five-year-old Adanye Jerome.

President Irfaan Ali had ordered a CoI into the circumstances surrounding the deadly incident. The ToR detailed that the commission will inquire into and report on everything leading up to the dormitory fire that claimed the lives of 20 juveniles back in May, as well as the causes of the fire.
The Commission was required to investigate and report on what actions were taken to provide care, medical attention, and support to the injured and deceased and their relatives, in a timely manner. Recommendations are also expected from the commission, which will include necessary measures to prevent a reoccurrence of such tragedies.
Chairman of the Commission, retired Major General Joseph Singh has notified that the report will be completed by next week and then handed over to the President before the end of the month.

While the fire would have resulted in the death of 20 children, it was emphasized that this incident has altered the lives of 112 students and the two down parents.
“The citizens of this country will have a right to know what transpired on the 21st May, 2023 on all the action that was taken thereafter. It is true that the events of this day will continue to live in this country’s history. For this reason, it is essential that there is closure on this matter and also efficient and effective documentation of what transpired and what has followed since this event,” Griffith contended.
With the evidence collected, the cause of the fire at the dormitory is consistent with the reports of professionals who investigated the cause. The panel heard that the fire was not caused by electrical malfunctions associated with the building and secondly, the cause of the fire was malicious in nature and caused by an individual.

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