CHIANG RAI — Police said today no one will face criminal charges for the blaze that killed 17 schoolgirls at a charity-run boarding school in northern Thailand last month.
The fire has been ruled as an unpreventable accident by investigators, despite the fact the Pitakkiat Wittaya School had no smoke detectors or fire alarms in the dormitory, and no adult staff were present when the fire broke out just before midnight on May 22.
“This is a joint opinion reached by investigators and the Region 5 Forensics Center,” Chiang Rai police chief Thanayin Thepraksa said Thursday. “The fire was an incident beyond any reasonable prevention. It was an unforeseeable incident.”
As a result, the directors of Panthakit Suksan Foundation, the Christian charity group that ran the boarding school, will not be charged with any crime, such as fatal negligence, for the deaths of the girls, who mostly came from impoverished hill tribe families.
Police announced their decision to families of the deceased students at a Monday meeting members of the media were not allowed to attend, according to an NGO staff member aiding the the victims’ families.
One parent said today said he’s not satisfied the decision.
“I feel that the police are trying to close the case down quickly,” Winai Pisailert, whose 11-year-old daughter died in the fire, said by telephone.
As for the absence of basic safety equipment such as smoke detectors and alarms, Maj. Gen. Thanayin said it didn’t matter.
“That has nothing to do with it. That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s not related. In terms of a criminal investigation, it’s over.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, police urged patience and were slow to release any findings. Ultimately, they blamed the fire on a light bulb melting out of its socket and igniting clothing; a theory dismissed as improbable by engineers.
While the criminal investigation is concluded, Thanayin said police have not completed full autopsy reports on the 17 victims, and their families could elect to sue the school directors for financial compensation.
Since the fire broke out at the boarding school in Wiang Pa Pao district last month, police were tight-lipped about the investigation. Much of the limelight went to a series of VIPs visiting the school for photo-ops, as they handed over donations collected from the public to the victims’ families.
Their eventual explanation for the fire – the overheated light bulb – also failed to convince parents of the 17 dead schoolchildren.
Nattapol Singhtuen, an activist with a children’s welfare foundation that has been assisting the families, said parents raised the issue again at Monday’s meeting, where Thanayin told them police were dropping the matter.
“The families had many questions, such as what exactly happened on the night of the fire, whether the light was on at the time, because if it was off, how could the light bulb overheat?” Nattapol said. “The villagers feel that the root cause is still unresolved.”
According to Nattapol, reporters were not allowed into the meeting because police commanders said they wanted to explain things and “have a direct conversation” with victims’ families first before going public with the news.
He added that the families have not yet planned any civil suit against the Panthakit Suksan Foundation.
“The villagers are not discussing this matter yet,” Nattapol said.