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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smoke, Horror in Samara As 65 Feared Dead in Fire




SAMARA, Central Russia -- The fire at the Samara police station was extinguished long ago, but late Friday night the odor lingered over the city for kilometers. Smoke was still pouring out of the ruins, even as icicles hung from the blackened walls.


And though officials are still talking of dozens of people as "missing," the true death toll of the catastrophe is almost certainly 65 people.


Some of the 23 officially recorded as dead were those who leapt from the windows of the five-story building - aiming desperately for drifts of snow, but falling short and dying on the sidewalk.


The rest - another 42 considered missing - will likely never be found. Their bodies were consumed by a white-hot 15-hour blaze that melted the pistols and rifles in the police arsenal into misshapen hunks, that warped and charred 20 metal safes, that cracked the windows of apartment buildings across the street and that sent thousands of police documents spiraling on hot updrafts into the Samara night sky, to litter fields and homes miles away.


"We have found just one 'unidentified object,'" said Nikolai Kovton, head of an Emergency Situations Ministry rescue team that flew in from Moscow - by which he meant a corpse charred not only behind identification, but beyond recognition as a body. "There are 40 more to go. If we find them, we find them. If we don't, we don't."


Kovton and dozens of other rescue workers had labored without stop for more than 24 hours by Friday evening. With floodlights, shovels and backhoes, they planned to work through the night and into Saturday morning.


But there is no hope of rescuing victims, and all 65 of those who disappeared into a blaze that looks suspiciously like arson will be mourned Saturday at a service in Samara.


Ten bodies that have been identified will be buried at that service. The others remain in morgues, as people not only from across Samara but from across Russia have been racing here to try to learn the fate of relatives who had worked in the building. Police have set up a center to deal with their anxious queries.


It is the worst thing ever to happen in Samara, according to visibly shaken residents.


"I haven't been able to sleep for two nights now, because of what we have lived through and what we saw," said Nellya Galiva, 41, who lives in the apartment building across the street from the Samara police station, and Friday was among a few women seated outside watching the cleanup operation.


"I started hearing screams at about 5:20 p.m. [on Wednesday], people were screaming for help, and then in about 10 or 15 minutes the third-floor and fourth-floor windows started emitting heavy black clouds of smoke," Galiva recounted. "People were hanging off of the windowsills, at least three or four people hanging from each window.


"I saw a man and woman jump, they were aiming for the snow drifts but they missed. They hit the sidewalk, and they were dead."


Kovton said the fire broke out simultaneously in three separate parts of the police station's third floor, which he and other officials have said smacks of arson. In addition to killing law officers and witnesses brought in to give testimony in criminal cases, the fire destroyed material evidence stores, a crime lab and extensive archives on criminal cases.


Many of those files involved an investigation into the powerful automobile manufacturer AvtoVAZ in neighboring Tolyatti, a probe in which police officials have filed 151 separate criminal charges.


On Friday, 20 bent and blackened metal safes stood lined up in a row in the street before the police station. Two Interior Ministry lieutenant colonels with shovels could be seen poking amidst the charcoal-like baked ashes, with little success.


At a news conference in Moscow, Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Tolkachov said authorities tentatively suspect either arson or a wiring short circuit. But rescue workers on the ground in Samara, impressed by the speed and breadth of the fire, were speaking bitterly of arson.


Tolkachov noted the AvtoVAZ connection but warned against drawing conclusions until an investigation is completed.


It was not the first fire at the 65-year-old police station house, which was built in 1934 and had a largely wooden interior. A major fire broke out in the building in 1980, but no one was hurt as it occurred during the night.


This time, however, the fire hit during work hours, at a time when about 120 people were inside. It spread so quickly to cut off exits in various places that more than half of those people never made it back out. Of those that did, 32 were still being treated in Samara hospitals Friday evening.


Witnesses said that some people hanging out of windows and begging for rescue became so irrational in their panic that they began to take off their clothing and through it out the window.


They said firefighters were hampered by a lack of equipment - including ladder trucks, two of which eventually arrived from the neighboring city of Tolyatti more than an hour after the blaze broke out - and by extremely low water pressure in the Samara city mains.


Firefighters in the end jury-rigged a pipeline that stretched to the Volga River, 1 1/2 kilometers away. But bright red flames rising 5 meters above the building into the sky were not easily doused, and it was all firefighters could do to prevent them from spreading to neighboring buildings. Eventually all five of the building's floors collapsed, burying the remnants of everyone and everything still inside.