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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

45 Perish in Fire at Treatment Center

APA relative of a victim weeping near the wall of the drug and alcohol treatment center Saturday as an emergency-response worker comforts another relative.
Forty-five women died when a fire broke out in a drug and alcohol treatment center in southern Moscow early Saturday morning.

All but two of the women -- 43 patients and two employees -- died of asphyxiation after their escape was blocked by locked doors and barred windows at state-owned Moscow Substance-Abuse Hospital No. 17.

"Judging by the location of the bodies, they tried hard to get out," Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Chupriyan told reporters outside the hospital Saturday morning, Interfax reported.

All of the patients who died had been admitted for short-term treatment for drug addiction. Many were HIV positive, said Olga Rudakova, a psychologist at the center.

Rescue workers evacuated 214 people from the building. Ten injured patients were taken to three area hospitals, two of them in critical condition.

Patients who escaped the burning building described panic among hospital staff and a lack of coordination. No alarm went off, and patients and staff did not know how to react.

"They were asking us for advice," said Andrei Kotov, 45, a patient on the hospital's fourth floor. Staff had keys for the locks on the windows, he said, but they were on a ring with so many other keys that no one could find the right keys. "It was like Sport lotto," Kotov said, referring to the televised lottery in which contestants choose a key. "If you choose the right key to the lock, then you get out. We managed to get out and those women on the second floor apparently did not.

"We heard screams of help from the second floor but it seems as if no one could help those women," Kotov said.

Viktor Klimkin, the city's chief fire inspector, said the hospital staff were at least partially responsible for the deaths.

"We can already say that the response of the staff was inadequate," Klimkin told Interfax. Staff failed to open the locks on the barred windows, he said, adding that firefighters were not called until the fire had been raging for 20 minutes.

Yelena, a patient who declined to give her last name, escaped from the fifth floor only after firemen cut through the bars on the window and escorted her downstairs.

"What do you expect in a psychiatric treatment center?" said Rudakova, when asked if the center's barred windows and locks were necessary.

The alarm was raised at 1:42 a.m. on Saturday, and although firefighters responded to the scene within 10 minutes, they were too late to save the women from the toxic smoke that quickly engulfed the ward.

Officials said the fire had consumed just 25 square meters of the hospital, located at 16 Bolotnikovskaya Ulitsa, near the Nakhimovsky Prospekt and Kakhovskaya metro stations.

It was the smoke that killed.


Reuters
A fireman using a crowbar to open a door at the drug-treatment center Saturday. Locked doors contributed to the toll.
"People instantly lost consciousness from the fumes and died," Klimkin said. An inexpensive plastic wall covering had given off the toxic fumes.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who visited the scene early Saturday, called it "a horible, tragic event," Interfax reported.

The mayor also said the cause of the blaze was "more than likely arson."

Klimkin said there were no electrical circuits in the area where the fire broke out and arson was the likely cause.

A source in the City Prosecutor's Office told Interfax that investigators were looking into the possibility that a patient set fire to the ward after being refused drugs.

The source said the patient probably died in the fire.

Saturday's fire in Moscow proved deadlier than a 1977 blaze at the Rossiya Hotel, which claimed 42 lives, although that official death toll has been disputed.

A dormitory fire at People's Friendship University in Moscow claimed 43 lives in 2003.

Broken glass was still strewn outside the five-story hospital on Saturday afternoon. Two second-floor windows were broken, but there were few other external signs of the fire.

Inside the building, however, television footage showed that the fire had gutted parts of the second floor. Ash covered beds and belongings.

The Emergency Situations Ministry sent inspection teams to the hospital in February and March, and found fire-code violations on both occasions. The violations included locks on the barred windows and metal grills blocking staircases, both of which staff could not open.


Rossia TV / AP
Firefighters trying to open the windows of a drug-treatment center Saturday.
A court denied the ministry's request to close down the hospital, however.

City prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the fire-code violations.

The Moscow hospital fire was the third in a medical facility nationwide within a 48-hour period.

Nine people died and 15 were hospitalized when fire swept through a children's psychiatric facility in the Kemerova region town of Taiga on Sunday, Interfax reported.

Arson was suspected in the fire. Prosecutors are also trying to determine why an hour and a half passed before the fire department was called.

"All that time, people in the building were trying to put out the fire themselves," a local emergency services spokesman told RIA-Novosti.

In the Tver region, more than 300 patients were evacuated early Friday from a psychiatric facility after a short circuit caused a fire, Interfax reported. No one was hurt in the incident.

Fire-related deaths are a major cause of death in Russia. Numbers have soared since the breakup of the Soviet Union, with about 18,000 deaths per year, 10 times more than in the United States and 12.5 times more than in Great Britain.

French President Jacques Chirac offered his condolences Saturday in a telegram sent to President Vladimir Putin. Putin had made no comment about the fire as of Sunday evening.