A nighttime fire in a Thailand primary school dormitory killed 18 girls — some as young as 5 years old — after students woken up by a dorm-mate believed she was joking and went back to sleep, officials said.
Survivors were forced to rappel down from a second-floor window using bed sheets tied together to escape the flames that broke out in the northern Thailand dorm, which housed 38 girls, the Associated Press reported.
The victims were between 5 and 12 years old, including two girls whose bodies were so badly burned they were unidentifiable, authorities said. Five girls were injured, including two in serious condition, according to the AP.
It took firefighters three hours to put out the fire, which was believed to have started in the two-story wooden dorm’s lower level, which was used for activities.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but investigators are looking at the possibility of faulty lighting on the floor below, Reuters reported.
Students who were not asleep when the fire broke out were able to raise the alarm, but some students thought the warning was a prank and went back to bed, authorities and students said.
An 11-year-old student told reporters she was on her way to the bathroom when she saw the fire downstairs. She ran back to warn her friends, but some of the girls didn’t believe her and closed the door on her to go back to sleep, she said.
Survivors said they used lessons they learned from their Girl Scout troop to construct a makeshift rope to escape the building. A teacher who sleeps in the dorm helped the girls with the rope and was climbing down herself when it snapped, a student said.
“The rope tore and she hurt her leg and waist,” the fifth-grade student said.
The dorm is attached to the Pithakkaiat Witthaya School, a Christian school that many poor hill-tribe families send their children to, according to reports.
About 400 day students and boarders attend the school, which is located in the northern province of Chiang Rai, about 500 miles north of Bangkok.
The fire broke out in one of the two dorms on the 20-acre school grounds. The other dorm, which is nearby and for boys, was untouched, authorities said.
“I am at a loss for words," school head Pim Wasana told Reuters. "I don't know what I should do, but the only thing on my mind now is to try to find a way to ease the parents' suffering."