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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fire Destroys Historic Manezh Hall

An enormous fire engulfed the Central Manezh Exhibition Hall near Red Square on Sunday night, destroying one of Moscow's most precious historical buildings and raising fears that it might spread to the Kremlin.

Some 60 fire trucks were battling the fire at 11:30 p.m., as flames leapt 30 meters above the building, lighting up the night sky and sending a red glow across the Kremlin.

NTV television reported that firefighters were struggling to stop the fire from spreading to the Kremlin. But Sergei Devyatov, spokesman for the Federal Guard Service, said there was little risk of that happening.

"There is practically no danger of the fire spreading to the historical buildings of the Kremlin," he was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Hundreds of people -- many in a celebratory mood after taking part in Sunday's presidential election, which election officials had ordered to be treated like a holiday -- gathered on Manezh Square to watch the blaze. They cheered "Hurrah!" as each section of the building's roof collapsed with a loud crash.

Two firefighters were evacuated after suffering smoke inhalation, and one was hospitalized, Interfax reported. NTV said two firefighters suffered burns and one was hospitalized. Other news reports said two firefighters had been killed.

The fire -- ranked a five, the most serious category -- was the apparent result of a short circuit, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

With some 5,000 square meters of the 7,500-square-meter building gutted by 11:30 p.m., firefighters said there was no hope of saving the 19th-century structure.

Black smoke swirled below the flames, blocking out all view of the building from Okhotny Ryad. The heat from the fire was so intense that window frames from a university building opposite the Manezh began to melt, the firefighting department said, RIA-Novosti reported.

Firefighting helicopters and 50-meter cranes were on their way to the scene to pour water on the burning building.

Built in 1817 to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon, the former Imperial Riding School was the country's biggest exhibition hall and one of Moscow's best-known landmarks. Designed by Osip Bove, the city's general architect who helped rebuild the city after the Great Fire of 1812, the building was listed by the government as a national treasure.

"We have lost a colossal, wonderful monument of Russian culture and architecture," said Alexei Klimenko, a member of City Hall's architectural council and a vocal critic of a city program to tear down crumbling historical buildings and replace them with what it calls safer structures.

"But I think that the fire was deliberately set. They will call it a problem with the electricity. [But] it is much easier to dig a big hole than to preserve," Klimenko said.

Even if the fire was an accident, Klimenko said, Moscow should have to answer for the loss of such a building.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov promised to rebuild the Manezh.

Staff Writer Simon Ostrovsky contributed to this report.