Electric Heater Suspected in Deadly Fire

Investigators said Monday that an electric heater probably sparked a fire that killed at least 16 people in a three-story wooden apartment building in the Astrakhan region last weekend.

The southern region declared Monday as a day of mourning for those killed when the fire roared through the building in the village of Molodyozhny late Saturday. Five of the dead were children aged 7 to 15.

Investigators said they had not ruled out arson but had opened a criminal case over the careless use of electric heaters as the most likely cause for the fire.

The building, constructed in 1982, served as a hostel and was in poor condition, said Alexander Pogozhev, spokesman for the Astrakhan branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

The fire spread through most of the building by the time firefighters arrived, the ministry said in a statement.

Sixty-six people were evacuated from the building to a nearby kindergarten or temporarily relocated to the city of Astrakhan, located 40 kilometers away, Pogozhev said.

He said 100,000 rubles ($3,000) would be paid in compensation to relatives of each of the victims.

Six people were hospitalized after the fire.

A special commission has been formed to examine the fire safety of 28 similar old wooden houses in the village. Fires in old buildings are not uncommon in Russia, especially during the winter when heaters and stoves are being used.

Presidential envoy Vladimir Ustinov has flown to the village on orders from President Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev ordered checks on retirement homes, hostels and schools across the country after a fire destroyed a retirement home in the northern region of Komi on Jan. 31, killing 23.