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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fire Guts Hospice, 21 Dead

A fire that consumed a mental-care hospice in a small Vologda region town early Friday morning killed 21 men, nearly all of them with cerebral palsy or other severe ailments that left them unable to get out of their beds.

The fire chief for the city of Ustyuzha, about 1 1/2 kilometers from Mikhailovskoye, the town where the mental-care center was located, said in a telephone interview that all but one of the dead had not made it out of bed.

Fire chief Nikolai Vorobyov, clearly rattled at what he had seen, described finding nothing but a backbone or a knot of muscle baked into the charred metal beds.

All of the men were also sedated, said Vasily Smirnov, a representative of the Vologda regional government responsible for the hospice. But Smirnov hotly denied a speculative report by Interfax that cited unnamed "experts" as saying the sedation might have been inordinately heavy - a practice that human rights activists have criticized as common in state institutions dealing with the mentally ill.

"This [suggestion that the patients were heavily sedated] is just absurd. We get only half of the funding we need. We don't have enough money for drugs, let alone any sort of additional tranquilizers," Smirnov cried out. "This is a mercy center for people who need additional help, they need to be fed. The nurses were shocked, they cried all day long."

Smirnov added that sedated or not, these men suffered mental illnesses so debilitating that they would not have been able to save themselves. Most had been in institutions their entire lives, and many would not have been able to react at all to the fire. "Many of them could barely crawl," he said.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov sent his condolences and ordered a special committee, to be headed by Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov, to investigate. But for now at least, the investigation will have to do without Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and other leading law enforcement officials, who Friday were bound for Vladikavkaz, the site of a bomb that killed more than 60 people.

Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalyev, who visited the site of the fire Friday, declared three days of mourning in the Vologda region. Footage from the scene from national television showed a few blackened chimneys - all that remained of the one-story wooden hospice - standing alone amid heaps of smoking ashes.

Firefighters and hospice nurses were able to carry 15 of the hospice's 35 patients out of the building, Vorobyov said."The firefighters had to lift them from their beds and carry them out," he said. One of those men later died of burns. Of the remaining, 11 of them - two with burns across a third of their bodies - were being treated either at a regional hospital or at a burn center in nearby Cherepovets.

Vorobyov said the patients were not tied to their beds, which is another commonly criticized practice at Russian mental institutions. "I am sure because I asked the firefighters who were carrying the patients out, and they did not have to untie them," Vorobyov said.

The Mikhailovskoye hospice was a collection of five, small one-story buildings, and the fire broke out in building No. 2, which was home to 35 male patients, ranging in age from 24 to 72.

Each of those men received a tranquilizer at 8 p.m. Thursday night, Smirnov said. A little after 10:30 p.m., a nurse and two aides smelled smoke in a room where industrial-sized radiations were used to dry mattresses and sheets, which are frequently soiled by the patients and need frequent cleanings and dryings.

Both Smirnov and Vorobyov said the nurses panicked and ran to get buckets of water instead of using fire extinguishers in the building. But the fire quickly slipped out of their control and they called in the fire department.

Five fire trucks from nearby Ustyuzha arrived in about five minutes, but building No. 2 was already largely gone. It took three hours to contain the fire, and it was not finally extinguished until 5 a.m. Friday.

From dawn Friday until evening, firefighters sifted through the smoking ruins in search of remains. What they found was shipped to the Vologda regional police headquarters for additional investigation. The bodies were expected to be buried at the mental institution's own cemetery, about a mile away.

Investigators from the police and the fire department were also interrogating the nurses and searching the site. Although police had not ruled out arson, Vorobyov said investigators were looking at the electrical wiring as a possible cause. Constructed in 1918, the hospice underwent major renovations last year, including the installation of new wiring.

The patients themselves could not have caused the fire, Smirnov said. He said two of the 35 men smoked, and they got their cigarettes - and more importantly, a light for the cigarettes - from a nurse, who supervised their smoking.

By late Friday afternoon, a team from the regional prosecutor's office was also on the scene. But no relatives were in sight. Most of the patients, some of whom have been in a mental institution since their birth, had had no contact with their families for years.

"We just got a phone call, the relatives wanted to check if a man was hurt in the fire," Smirnov said, and swallowed hard.

"Well, the man had been dead for 9 years."