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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

21 Dead, But Poor Still Pick Bootleg Vodka

KRASNOYARSK, Western Siberia -- For Viktor, a factory worker who lives with his four children in a dingy one-room apartment, drinking vodka is a daily ritual.

When his meager pay does not stretch to vodka, he will go to the bootlegger in the neighboring apartment for the next best thing: black-market industrial alcohol.

That can have fatal consequences. Twenty-one people, among them two of Viktor's drinking buddies, died last month after drinking industrial alcohol which turned out to be contaminated by a deadly cocktail of poisons. Another nine people were poisoned but survived because they managed to get to the hospital before they lost consciousness.

The mass poisoning in Krasnoyarsk stood out only for its scale. In 1995, 43,000 people died from alcohol poisoning, compared to an annual U.S. death toll of about 350, according to prominent U.S. demographer Murray Feshbach. The statistics do not distinguish between poisoning by overdose and by contaminants, but media reports of contaminated alcohol are frequent.

On Ulitsa Glinky, the ramshackle district on the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk where most of the poisoning victims came from -- and where Viktor lives -- abject poverty drives people to ignore the risk. to get hold of vodka as cheaply as they can. Therefore it's inevitable that someone could slip you something poisonous, whether deliberately or not."

Viktor buried his two drinking partners last week. But when money is short, he still drinks the bootleg stuff. Half a liter of the cheapest vodka sells in the local store for 12,000 rubles (just over $2) while the same quantity of hooch costs just 8,000 rubles.

A welder at a nearby factory, Viktor is supposed to earn 700,000 rubles a month. But last month, the workers were paid just 70,000 rubles. Since his wife left him several months ago, taking with her the family's social security card, he has been unable to claim any benefits for his four children.

He bears no grudge against the neighbors who sold the lethal booze out of their apartment.

"The people who sell this stuff are just normal people," he said, standing amid the piles of dirty clothes and unwashed dishes which litter his ground-floor room. "They are pensioners and people with a lot of children. Those who don't have any money, they sell it. If I had the connections, I too would buy bootleg vodka and sell it."

The manager of a local warehouse has been arrested in connection with the poisoning and charged with causing death through negligence, said Yevgeny Vasilyev, the prosecutor for Krasnoyarsk's Leninsky district. Police say she sold industrial alcohol from the warehouse through her relatives. If found guilty, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

In this case, ethyl alcohol -- the drinkable kind -- was contaminated by highly toxic methyl alcohol, along with other poisonous solvents such as acetone.

The sellers of the vodka were arrested but later released without charges. They were keeping a low profile this week. At the apartment in building 21-A on Ulitsa Glinky where neighbors said the deadly alcohol was sold, a young woman with bleached blonde hair brusquely turned visitors away. "No one sold any vodka here," she said, slamming the door.

"Everyone trades in vodka," said Vera Ignatyevna, a 69-year-old pensioner who didn't provide her last name. "It wasn't just that building. They sell vodka out of all of these buildings."

Several poisoning victims took just a sip. "Five or 10 milliliters of the stuff is already a deadly dose," said Alimov, who is also Krasnoyarsk's chief toxicologist.

He said that most victims at first thought they had a bad hangover and stayed home. Twenty-four hours after the poisonous batch hit the streets, the first victim, a 56-year-old man, came to the emergency room complaining of shivering, blurred vision, heart palpitations and dizziness. An hour later, he started to hyperventilate and died within minutes.

As more victims began to arrive, doctors frantically tried to determine what the poison was so that they could decide on a treatment. But without diagnostic equipment, it took several critical hours to learn that the victims had drunk methyl alcohol. "Rich hospitals and clinics have that sort of thing, but we can't afford it," said Alimov.

In all, 21 people were treated for alcohol poisoning, of which nine died. The other 12 who died never made it to the hospital. Their bodies were found in their apartments over the next few days by neighbors and police.

Doctors say the incident will not be the last. On average, three victims of alcohol poisoning are treated every day in the city's emergency hospital.

"Of course this will repeat itself," said Alimov. The victims he managed to save are now "all healthy and fit and have already started drinking again."