It started as a secret way of studying after lights out in a dormitory and ended in the tragedy that has left the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu in mourning.

As Tuvaluans in New Zealand gathered in Auckland to remember the dead, further details of the tragedy which killed 18 schoolgirls and a matron emerged.

The Minister of Works, Energy and Communications for Tuvalu, Samuelu Penitala Teo, said that while it was an electrical fire that ripped through the girls' dormitory at Motufoua School - locked and with mesh windows to keep the boys out - it was thought to have been caused when flames engulfed a girl studying by candlelight.


After lights-out, she had been using the candle in a cardboard box with a sheet over the top.

"She must have fallen asleep. She caught fire, and so did the bed sheet. She must have thrown it off onto the switches," said the minister, who attended a memorial service at Grey Lynn last night.

The only formal fire-fighting service in the tiny Pacific Island nation, home to 9500 people 1000km north of Fiji, was miles away on another island.

Last night, 200 crammed into a small Grey Lynn church to remember the dead, as people spilled out of the church and children played on the grass.

There were tears from bowed heads as church leaders prayed for comfort for the many extended families affected by the tragedy.

Tuvalu Community Trust chairman Malua Taufala, an old-boy of Motufoua, the nation's only secondary school, said many of the 5000 Tuvaluans in New Zealand would be related to someone who died in the fire.

Some families were planning trips back to Tuvalu "to pay their tributes to the tragedy," he said.

Former Finance Minister Henry Naisali, based in Auckland, lost his adopted grand-daughter Leanne Folitau, 13, in the blaze.

He said he and his wife were too distraught to travel to Tuvalu for funeral ceremonies but would spend quiet time at home remembering their beloved grand-daughter.

"We were devastated by the news. My wife fell to the ground and just cried and cried. I said, 'Mum, this is life. We have to face temptations and trials and try and accept the hard things'," he said.

"This is not easy for me. We lived with her for a number of years. I can see her face in my mind. But we have to accept she is gone."

Mr Naisali said everyone would have been touched by the tragedy, as the Tuvalu people had a strong sense of community and extended family.

Professor of Pacific History at Auckland University Hugh Laracy, who wrote a book about Tuvalu in 1983, said the tragic event would touch residents on the eight populated islands and atolls which make up Tuvalu.

He said Motufoua School was the main school for the island and was situated across the lagoon from the capital, taking in boys and girls as boarders from all the islands.

Professor Laracy said the country's strong commitment to its Protestant-based Church of Tuvalu would help those caught up in the tragedy.