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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

In Neo-Soviet Russia, More Grandmothers Incinerated

The Moscow Times reports:

At least 31 people died after a blaze swept through a Tula region home for the elderly that fire inspectors had twice declared unsafe, officials said Monday. Investigators blamed sparks from poorly kept electrical wiring for Sunday's fire but said the high death toll was likely because of employee negligence and a lack of adherence to fire safety regulations. "More investigation is needed," said Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. "But we can say for sure that the lack of immediate action on the part of the nurses exacerbated the situation." The country's top investigator, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, traveled Monday to the home in the small town of Velyo-Nikolskoye, about 250 kilometers south of Moscow. A specially formed committee under Bastrykin will investigate the blaze, although criminal proceedings have been opened under Article 219 of the Criminal Code -- violating fire safety rules leading to the death of two or more people.

The fire broke out at around 12:45 p.m. Sunday at the two-story, T-shaped home built 55 years ago. Firefighters were called to the blaze at least 30 minutes after it began, leading investigators to suspect that staff had tried to extinguish it on their own first, Beltsov said. The blaze spread from room to room quickly because the walls and roofing were made of wood and the furniture inside was highly flammable, he said. There was neither an alarm nor a sprinkler system in place, he said. About 300 people -- including elderly and senile patients and some 10 staff members -- had been in the building, Beltsov said.

An Emergency Situations Ministry official who was at the scene said little of the building was left standing. "It is a wonder that more people were not killed," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "More people could have been saved if the evacuation process had been organized more effectively." Fire safety officials had inspected the building twice this year and asked the Chernsky District Court to close the building for "dozens and dozens" of safety violations, Beltsov said, without elaborating. The court could not be reached Monday, a public holiday, for comment on why it had refused to close the home.

In March, 62 people died when a fire roared through a nursing home -- also without an alarm system -- near Rostov-on-Don. It took nearly an hour for firefighters from the nearest fire station to reach the scene.

In June, the duty nurse at a nursing home in Omsk failed to alert patients when a fire triggered the alarm. Firefighters arrived late, and 10 people died.

Almost 10,000 people have died in blazes across the country this year, data from the Emergency Situations Ministry show. More than 18,000 people died in fires last year, a 3.5-fold increase from 2003.

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