Pupils and teachers inside the Islamic study centre in downtown Kuala Lumpur screamed for help as helpless neighbours looked on.

Many of the bodies of the victims — who included 22 boys aged between 13 and 17 — were found piled on top of one another, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to escape the blaze which erupted before dawn.

Firefighters rushed to the scene and the fire was out within an hour but it had wreaked terrible devastation.

Pictures in local media showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds in the students’ sleeping quarters.

“The building was on fire as the (morning call to prayer) was sounding,” Norhayati Abdul Halim, 46, who lives opposite the school, told AFP.

“I could hear screaming, I thought there were people fighting. I opened the window to my house and I could see the school on fire — they cried for help but I couldn’t do anything,” the sad neighbour said.

By the time firefighters arrived at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school in the heart of the capital, “the screams had stopped”, she added.

Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said the children, who were boarders at the school, were “desperately trying to escape the flames” but metal security grilles covering the windows of their dormitory prevented them.

The circumstance may force the government to put a law that will bar use of security grilles on windows.

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