MORE than 30 people have been killed after a fire swept through a Russian psychiatric hospital – the second such blaze in less than five months.
The fire in the one-storey hospital in the village of Luka, about 280 miles north-west of Moscow, began at about 3am yesterday and quickly engulfed the structure, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.
Authorities had long warned that the mostly wooden building dating back to the 19th century was unsafe.
It was the second deadly blaze at a psychiatric hospital in less than five months, highlighting concerns about widespread neglect of fire safety standards in Russia. A fire near Moscow killed 38 people in April.
Yesterday, the ministry said rescuers had recovered 26 bodies. It did not explain how it confirmed the other deaths.
The agency added that the blaze was apparently inadvertently sparked by a patient, but the hospital’s chief doctor insisted the fire was deliberate.
State Rossiya 24 television reported that a witness said a smoking patient caused the fire. It said a nurse tried to put out the flames with a blanket but they spread quickly. The 44-year-old nurse, who was married with four children, died in the fire while trying to rescue patients.
The man who started the fire was saved, Rossiya 24 reported. However, Husein Magomedov, the hospital’s chief doctor, denied the fire was caused by a smoking patient and said that the patient deliberately set the fire and died in the blaze.
Firemen arrived at the scene within minutes, but found the building already well alight.
“Fire spread through the building in a moment,” Boris Borzov, the top firefighting official said in televised remarks.
Russian television stations showed the smouldering ruins of the hospital with rescuers combing through debris in a search for bodies.
Emergency officials said 23 of the 60 people in the building when the blaze broke out were evacuated.
Emergency teams combed nearby forest for patients who may have fled the blaze or wandered off, but officials said from the start they had little hope of finding any survivors.
Emergency officials had demanded the facility be closed after it failed a fire safety check earlier this year. The hospital administration, however, won permission to continue using it until next year.
The head of Russia’s top state investigation agency flew to the area to personally oversee a probe. Investigative Committee’s Yekaterina Gilina said on Rossiya 24 that the probe will look into whether hospital officials had fulfilled a court order to fix the flaws in the building.
Russia has a poor fire safety record with about 12,000 fire deaths reported in 2012. By comparison, the United States, with a population roughly double Russia’s, recorded around 3,000 fire deaths in 2011.
Critics of the government say state authorities frequently blame the victims of fires in order to avoid culpability.
Fires with high death tolls have not been uncommon at state institutions including drug treatment centres and homes for the disabled over the past decade.
Russia, a nation of 142 million, is also plagued by accidents on its roads, rails, rivers and in the workplace.
Critics say President Vladimir Putin has made little progress stemming the corruption and corner-cutting blamed for many deadly accidents.
Yuri Savenko, president of the independent psychiatric association of Russia, said the shabby state of psychiatric hospitals was pushing up death tolls from fires.
He said a third of the buildings at such facilities had been declared unfit for use since 2000.