At least 17 schoolgirls were killed when a fire broke out in a boarding school dormitory in northern Thailand, police said on Monday.
The fire broke out late on Sunday while the schoolgirls aged between five to 12 were sleeping at the Christian school dormitory in the northern province of Chiang Rai. The dormitory is for girls from the region's poor hill-tribe villages.
"Most of the losses were because the children were asleep," said district police chief Colonel Prayad Singsin. "Those that got out were awake," he said.
The police chief said that the cause of the fire could not be ascertained.
The two-storey wooden structure, which caught fire Sunday night, housed 38 girls, most of them belonging to the area's ethnic minorities. Fifteen girls escaped the incident uninjured. Some of the students were not asleep when the fire broke out. They raised the alarm to alert others, said Rewat Wassana, manager of the Pithakkaiat Witthaya School, to which the dormitory is attached.
The kindergarten and primary school in Wiang Pa Pao district, just outside the city of Chiang Rai, has about 400 day students and boarders. It is about 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Bangkok.
Rewat said the fire broke out in the dorm's lower level, which is used for activities. The upper level housed the sleeping quarters.
Rewat told reporters at a news conference that a teacher who was at school to stay with the girls in the dorm tried to help students escape the fire.
An 11-year-old girl identified only as Suchada told the same news conference that she had gotten up to go to the bathroom when she noticed the fire downstairs, and ran to tell her friends in various rooms. But she said that some of them didn't believe her and closed the door on her to go back to sleep.
"We remembered some lessons from Girl Scouts to tie cloth together to make a long rope and we climbed out of the window," the fifth-grade student said. "The teacher helped us. While the teacher was climbing down, the rope tore and she hurt her leg and waist."
Most of the victims had shut themselves in their rooms thinking Suchada was playing a prank.
A police official said that besides the 17 dead, another five girls were injured, including two in serious condition. He said two of the bodies were so badly burned that they could not be recognised.
It took three hours for the firefighters to extinguish the fire. They pulled out survivors and bodies from the window of the second storey of the wooden building.