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Archive for Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fire kills at least 62 at nursing home

Russian town was an hour from nearest fire station

March 21, 2007

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— The feeble residents of the nursing home lived their final moments in terror, some banging on windows pleading for help as the two-story brick building burned around them in the middle of the night.

"I rushed here, saw the flames and started to help people get out from the second floor," a local resident, Yevgeny Solomin, told NTV television. "But what could we do? Do you know how hard it is to get someone down a ladder from the second floor? If only firefighters had been here."

The closest fire crews were 30 miles away and arrived an hour later, too late to do anything for the 62 people who died inside.

Maxim Movchan, one of the rescue workers, entered what was left of the building and saw the body of a man with his head ablaze. "When I saw those who suffocated ... I thought they were more lucky," he said hours after the fire Tuesday.

Coming a day after an explosion that killed more than 100 miners in Siberia, the disaster raised troubling questions about how much newly prosperous Russia has recovered from post-Soviet deterioration: Did the local fire station have to be closed last year? Why did the home's watchman ignore two fire alarms? Why were staff members away from their posts, slowing the evacuation?

"The authorities have forgotten about us," residents shouted at President Vladimir Putin's regional representative when he showed up at the charred wreckage in Kamyshevatskaya, a village on the Azov Sea in southern Russia.

Officials blamed the disaster on safety violations at the nursing home, toxic building materials used in a renovation, staff negligence and the nearest firehouse being so far away.

Many of the 93 elderly residents of the home were too frail to escape on their own, and nearly all of those who did get out suffered injuries.

"I didn't have time to get frightened. I opened the door, there was smoke and the acrid smell of plastic. I shut the door and immediately jumped out of the window. I have survived by a real miracle," Vasily Kondratko told NTV television.

Emergency officials said a night watchman ignored two fire alarms before reporting the blaze around 1 a.m. and it took firefighters in Yeisk almost an hour to get to Kamyshevatskaya, where the fire station was closed last year to save money. The blaze was reported out around 5 a.m.

Thirty-five people were injured, said Sergei Petrov, a regional emergency official. Acting Krasnodar Gov. Murat Akhedzhak said 30 people were hospitalized.

Officials said a fire alarm system that had not been fully installed signaled three times, but a watchman ignored the first two alarms and reported the fire only after he saw flames.

In addition, nursing home staff were absent from their posts, slowing efforts to find keys and open an emergency exit, officials said. The officials also said the nurse and three orderlies on duty weren't enough to quickly evacuate the building.

Putin declared today a national day of mourning for those killed in the fire and Siberian mine catastrophe as well as a plane crash Saturday that killed six. He ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the Cabinet to conduct thorough investigations, and Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said he would take personal control over the probes.

The country has suffered a number of deadly blazes at schools, dormitories, hospitals and other state facilities that have revealed rampant violations of fire safety rules and official negligence. A fire at a Moscow drug treatment facility in December killed 45 women trapped by gates and barred windows.

Russia records nearly 18,000 fire deaths a year, several times the per capita rate in the United States and other Western countries.

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