By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 10, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---A tipped over candle has set a girls dormitory ablaze killing 18 teenage girls and a woman on Vaitupu atoll in the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana said in a state broadcast Friday.

Two sisters were among the dead aged between 14 and 17 who came from seven different atolls in Tuvalu, a Polynesian nation of 10,000 people north of Fiji.

The building was wooden and the atoll, home to around 1,300 people, had no fire fighting equipment.

The girls were all attending the government secondary school at Motufoua on the atoll.

Ionatana announced the news in a brief statement and was due to leave Friday afternoon aboard the government patrol boat from the capital Funafuti to Vaitupu, three hours sailing to the north.

Vaitupu has no airport.

It said the fire was caused by a candle in the dormitory, which tipped over. The girls were unable to get out because doors were locked.

The matron who died in the fire was trying to free the girls.

None of the bodies could be identified and all would be buried Saturday at the school.

The girls came from Funafuti (two), Naunumea (four), Nui (three), Vaitupu (two), Nanumanga (three), Nukulaelae (two) and Niulakita (one). The matron came from Vaitupu.

The school was established in the 1920s by a New Zealand schoolteacher, Donald Kennedy, who during World War II won international fame as a coastwatcher and guerrilla fighter in the Solomon Islands.

Vaitupu is the second most populous island in Tuvalu and a number of its people live in Kioa in Fiji, where they bought land in the 1940s.

The country has been plunged into mourning at the worst disaster to befall the nation since independence from Britain in 1978. All government offices and shops have been closed.

Tuvalu is, however, no stranger to tragedy.

In the 1860s, slave traders from Peru seized most of the islanders from Funafuti and Nukulaelae and the few that returned came with diseases, which virtually wiped out the islands. They mostly speak Samoan today because all the indigenous speaking adults were killed.

During World War Two the Japanese heavily bombed a number of the atolls, killing locals in Funafuti and Vaitupu.

The nation also fears for its future and last month Ionatana was in New Zealand seeking permission for more Tuvaluans to migrate amidst concern that global warming and sea-level rises would swamp their islands.

Last month the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Tuvalu gave the nation a clean bill of health, saying "society is egalitarian, democratic, and respectful of human rights.''

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: 

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