Schoolgirls die in horror blaze

Eighteen schoolgirls and their supervisor were killed when fire swept through a locked dormitory at a school in the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, the country's government said Friday.

Eighteen schoolgirls and their supervisor were killed when fire swept through a locked dormitory at a school in the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, the country's government said Friday.

The Thursday night fire was believed to have been caused by a student's candle that sparked an inferno in the school's girls' sleeping quarters - a very old wooden building. Its door had been fastened shut and its open windows were covered in wire mesh.

The dead students, between the ages of 14 and 17, were trapped inside their dormitory at the school when the fire began. The supervisor died as she attempted to rescue them, Radio Tuvalu reporter Diana Semi told Australia's National Nine News.

"The girls were in the dormitory, were trying to escape from the fire but could not because all the doors were locked," Semi said.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana, announced the tragedy Friday in an address on Radio Tuvalu and offered his condolences to the nation.

He then set off for the six-hour boat trip to the remote coral atoll of Vaitupu to assess the damage and attend a mass burial of the victims.

People are generally buried within 12 hours of dying in many areas of the South Pacific, where there is little refrigeration and high temperatures outside.

A spokesman for the prime minister's office said the mass burial also had been decided because the bodies were burned beyond recognition and could not be returned to their parents.

The fire broke out in the Toalipi Girls dormitory at the Motufoua Secondary School, the tiny nation's largest school with about 300 students, both boys and girls.

An unidentified government spokesman told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio that 18 girls had escaped the flames by smashing down a door.

"A very serious tragedy has happened," the spokesman said. "The whole community is now mourning the death of the 18 girls."

The government said Friday it was launching an investigation into the blaze.

Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu is a nation of 9,500 people on nine coral atolls with a total area of just 26 square kilometers (10 square miles). It is 990 kilometers (620 miles) north of Fiji.

The islands achieved independence from Britain in 1978.

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