The blaze remains under investigation.
At midday, officers were still searching for the missing in Paynesville City, a suburb of the Liberian capital, Monrovia, as Red Cross ambulances rushed to treat the injured.
The victims are thought to be boys ages 10 to 20 who were studying the Koran.
“My prayers go out to the families of the children that died last night in Paynesville City; as a result of a deadly fire that engulfed their school building,” Liberian President George Weah said in a tweet. “This is a tough time for the families of the victims and all of Liberia. Deepest condolences go out to the bereaved.”
Gaylor Mulbah, who lives next door to the school, said he woke Wednesday morning to the noise of chaos.
“I came outside thinking there were armed robbers,” he said, “but everything was blazing. People were running, screaming, calling for help.”
Mulbah, a teacher at another school, said he tried to get to the boys but the heat was too intense to go near the building. Steel security bars blocked the windows.
Makeshift dwellings clogging the alleys around the school also caught fire, stalling rescuers. “It took two, three hours for the fire brigade to get in,” Mulbah said.
The boys who attend the Quranic Islamic School are known in the neighborhood as quiet and respectful. They often stay up late reading prayers, Mulbah said.
It is unclear how many students lived in the dormitory, but authorities said few were able to escape the inferno.
B. Abel Learwellie, executive director of Camp for Peace Liberia, a nonprofit organization in Paynesville City, said he cannot recall a disaster so deadly in the country of approximately 4.8 million since a landslide killed hundreds of miners nearly four decades ago.
“The police are still searching for bodies,” he said. “We pray the souls of these innocent children rest in peace.”
Fires kill an estimated 250,000 people each year worldwide, with the majority of victims in low- and middle-
income countries, according to the World Health Organization.
Experts say low-quality housing, aging infrastructure and a lack of funding for safety inspections heighten the risk.
Isaac Solo Kelgbeh, press secretary for Weah, said the government has launched a probe into how the Paynesville City fire spread so quickly. Most homes in Liberia lack smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, he said — an issue officials want to fix.
Neufville reported from Paynesville City.