PENANG: A pregnant woman could only watch helplessly as her two children were burnt to death in a pre-dawn blaze that swept through a cluster of over 50 houses at the Noordin Street Ghaut foreshore yesterday.
Umi Kalsum Harun, 38, who is seven months pregnant, fainted when she saw the bodies of Arwani Zulaika, two, and Anetasha Marid Diana, three, when they were brought out by firemen at about 9am.
The charred remains of the sisters were found huddled together in their bedroom after the fire, which broke out at about 4.55am.
The traumatised mother was earlier spotted waiting hopefully outside the Penang Hospital’s Emergency Unit yesterday, trying to get information about Arwani and Anetasha .
“Awak ada nampak anak saya? Awak fikir anak saya masih hidup atau mati? Kalau mereka lari, mana mereka pergi? (Have you seen my children? Do you think my children are alive or dead? If they have run off, where are they?)” she repeatedly asked anyone who spoke to her.
“What am I going to do now? My children are gone and my husband, a drug addict, was arrested by the police five days ago,” she said.
A couple and their two children were hospitalised with burns on their backs while about 500 people from 128 families were made homeless in the blaze.
Tan Teong Khoon, 39, said he, his wife Khor Bee Suan, 35, and their son Chin Kuan, 10, and daughter Nini, nine, had dashed out of their home earlier, but ran back to try to salvage their belongings as the fire was not burning fiercely then.
“I grabbed some personal documents and as we were running out, we were shocked to see our path blocked by the fire, which had engulfed the two rows of houses on both sides.
“I forced my wife and children to run through the fire or we would have been trapped. We managed to make it out safely but our backs were burnt and hair singed,” he said.
A woman who asked not to be named said she was awakened by her neighbours’ screams at 4.50am, adding she quickly woke up her husband, elderly mother and two children.
“We ran out with only the clothes on our back. We then heard pitiful cries of Ama, Ama coming from the children’s (Arwani and Anetasha) house. I alerted two men to rescue the girls but they were driven back by the heat,” she said.
Cheah Cheng Kooi, 22, said he was having breakfast with a friend at the Sia Boey wholesale market in Prangin Road when he heard the sirens from fire engines.
“I jumped onto my motorcycle and headed towards Weld Quay where I saw huge columns of smoke billowing from the Noordin Street Ghaut foreshore,” he said.
Cheah said while he was helping several residents to spray water on the roofs of their homes, he saw a boy and a girl standing outside a burning house.
“I carried one child under each arm and ran to safety. The parents had apparently left the children behind in their haste to flee the fire,” he said.
State Fire and Rescue Department director Rusmani Muhamad said 78 firemen in 12 engines, including two volunteer teams from Jalan Raja Uda on the mainland and Air Itam, brought the blaze under control by 7.25am.
“The fire spread quickly as it was fanned by strong winds,” he said, adding the blaze was believed to have started from the sisters’ house.
George Town OCPD Senior Asst Comm (II) Abdul Wahab Ahmad said police were investigating the cause of the fire and had not ruled out foul play.
National Unity and Social Development Minister Datuk Dr Siti Zaharah Sulaiman, who visited the scene yesterday, said the ministry would provide financial aid to the victims once their status had been verified in one or two weeks.
Meanwhile, the state government would provide the victims with food and lodging.