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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unnatural Gas Surge Alarms Town

Police were trying to determine Thursday how a surge in natural-gas pressure nearly spelled disaster for a Moscow suburban town, where stoves flared up uncontrollably and at least 15 apartments were damaged by fire.

"Everything we built up over the years, our whole lives, has crashed in an instant because of some else's carelessness," said pensioner Galina Bakina tearfully, surveying the gutted remains of her apartment in the town of Shcherbinka.

Hundreds of residents were evacuated from housing blocks about mid-morning Wednesday after a high-pressure central gas-supply system was somehow connected to the town's low-pressure domestic lines. Almost anybody who lit a gas ring before 2 p.m., when supplies were disconnected, was in for a rude surprise.

Fifteen apartments suffered fire damage, and at least two people, an 11-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man, were hospitalized with burns, local officials said Thursday.

Only fortuitous timing appears to have spared the town from a full-blown disaster.

"It was lucky this happened when it did," said Gennady Melnikov, a spokesman for the Moscow regional administration, which coordinated the firefighting efforts. "If it happened at 8 a.m. or in the evening when more burners were lit, it would have been far more serious."

Thirty-five fire engines were brought in from surrounding fire stations to contain the situation in Shcherbinka, a town of 150,000 people about 10 kilometers south of Moscow. With emergency phone lines hopelessly jammed with calls from alarmed residents, help came too late for some of the affected homes.

Bakina said she waited for 40 minutes for firemen to arrive and put out the blaze in her home, which started when she lit the stove to boil water.

A police investigation has been launched to determine the cause of the potentially deadly gas supply foul-up. Gas company officials said Thursday the cause was " gas authority. The governor of the Moscow region, Anatoly Tyazhlov, also announced that victims of the accident would receive assistance, the newspaper Kommersant Daily reported.

But while the gas company, town hall and angry residents thrash out questions of liability and compensation for Wednesday's incident, Bakina and her husband -- who suffers from a heart ailment -- prepare to spend another cold night Thursday huddled in their blackened two-room apartment.

Unsure when the local authorities will provide them with alternative accommodation promised Wednesday, they continue to salvage the few remaining undamaged objects in their home. They harbor little hope of receiving full recompense for their losses, and the bewildering flow of officials crunching through their apartment since Wednesday has done little to reassure them.

"Local counselors, gas company officials, detectives -- we've had them all," said Bakina, her face, hands and clothes still covered in soot.

"Someone from the prosecutor's office came around to make a preliminary inventory of the damaged items. He listed the wardrobe and fridge as 'smoke-stained,'" she said, gesturing toward a charred, grotesquely warped wall unit in the living room and a refrigerator in much the same state.

The Bakins say the gas company has offered to put them in temporary accommodations until their apartment has been repaired or a new one provided. On Thursday afternoon, however, with no further news on this front, their main hope is that someone will at least fit a new door so that the remnants of their possessions are safe if relatives offer them a bed.

Ivanov of the gas company said repair work is being carried out according to a strict order of priority.

"We were fixing people's heating until two this morning," he said testily. "Doors can wait."