CHIANG RAI — More than three weeks have passed since a fire killed 17 girls at a boarding school for impoverished hill tribe children, and police have yet to file a charge against anyone over the incident.
While the father of one victim said the delay is wearing him and other victim’s families down, police commanders Tuesday repeated their pleas for more time before they file any charge against the Christian charity that ran the school, where no smoke detectors were installed and no alarm was raised.
“We have to see whether it was reckless action or an accident that no one could have foreseen before we can file any charge,” deputy national police chief Chalermkiat Srivorakan said by telephone. “For this issue, investigators are still collecting testimony.”
Seventeen girls aged 5 to 12 died when the fire broke out in the dormitory of all-girls Pitakkiat Witthaya School just before midnight on May 22. Most of the children were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, as no alarm was raised to warn them of the fire.
Provincial police chief Thanayin Thepraksa said autopsy reports, details of injuries and witness’ testimony must be entirely completed first before filing any charges.
“We work as a team … we have to consult with other investigative officers,” Maj. Gen. Thanayin said.
‘I Don’t Know What to Do’
One group the officers are not consulting with is the parents, according to one father.
Winai Pisailert, whose 11-year-old daughter died in the fire, said police have not reached out to him at all to explain how the case is going. His patience is running thin.
“We have to travel up and down the mountain to find out about any progress,” said Winai, who like many other families of the victims, lives in a remote mountain community. “Many of us are exhausted now.”
Winai said he talked with other victims’ relatives and they share his frustration that the case appears to be going nowhere.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I just want to know why the process is so slow.”
He said he’s not alone in feeling left in the dark.
“Each family told me it’s very unclear; it’s not going anywhere. I have to ask the team to help us about this, because I don’t know what to do.”
The team Winai referred to is an NGO called Mirror Foundation that’s assisting the families. Foundation activist Nattapol Singhtuen said the job of his team, which includes a lawyer, is to explain to the families their legal rights and help them navigate the bureaucratic maze.
“Because they are mostly from the hill tribes, they don’t know about how this works,” Nattapol said. “They may think it’s all up to the bureaucracy to decide, but in fact these are their rights.”
One of those rights, he said, is to be informed about the progress of the criminal investigation, which police have not done.
Light Bulb Theory Doubted
Nattapol also said the victims’ families refuse to accept the explanation given by police that the blaze that killed the 17 girls started from a faulty light bulb.
According to police, the threading of a bulb overheated, melted and fell onto a pile of clothes, starting the fire.
“They want to know the true cause of the fire, so that they can accept it in their hearts,” Nattapol said. “But if the explanation isn’t reasonable, then they can’t accept it. Like this light bulb issue. They know how light bulbs work. They install and use them in their homes, too, and they haven’t seen that kind of incident before.”
The same doubt was previously cast by Pichaya Chantranuwat, who was dispatched by the Council of Engineers to inspect the site of the fire. Pichaya said it was unlikely to happen.
The school, run by a Christian foundation called Panthakit Suksan Foundation, re-opened on May 30.