Fires kills 62 at Russian nursing home

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Workers held a stretcher at a nursing home Tuesday after a nighttime fire in the Azov Sea coast village of Kamyshevatskaya, southern Russia, killed 62 people. (Semyon Danilov ~ Associated Press)

The nearest fire station was about 30 miles from the home.

KAMYSHEVATSKAYA, Russia -- Flames engulfed a nursing home in this village without a fire station Tuesday, killing 62 frail and elderly residents after the night watchman ignored two alarms and emergency teams took nearly an hour to arrive. At least 30 people were injured.

Angry residents hurled accusations of negligence at the regional envoy of President Vladimir Putin, who announced that today would be a national day of mourning for those killed in the fire and mine catastrophe in Siberia as well as a plane crash Saturday that killed six.

Authorities blamed the nursing home disaster on safety violations at the home, toxic building materials used in a renovation, negligence by the staff and the nearest firehouse being about 30 miles from Kamyshevatskaya, a town on the Azov Sea in southern Russia.

Many of the 93 elderly residents of the home were too frail to escape on their own, and nearly all of those who did get out suffered injuries.

"I didn't have time to get frightened. I opened the door, there was smoke and the acrid smell of plastic. I shut the door and immediately jumped out of the window. I have survived by a real miracle," one survivor, Vasily Kondratko, told NTV television.

Some residents banged on windows pleading for help, according to a local man who said he helped evacuate some people from the two-story brick building before firefighters arrived.

"I rushed here, saw the flames and started to help people get out from the second floor," Yevgeny Solomin told NTV. "But what could we do? Do you know how hard it is to get someone down a ladder from the second floor? If only firefighters had been here."

Emergency officials said a night watchman ignored two fire alarms before reporting the blaze around 1 a.m. and it took firefighters in Yeisk almost an hour to get to Kamyshevatskaya, where the fire station was closed last year to save money. The blaze was reported out around 5 a.m.

"When we arrived, we saw the ground floor in flames and gulps of flame under the roof. I entered the building and immediately saw a horrifying picture -- the body of a man lying on a bed, his head burning," rescue worker Maxim Movchan said. "When I saw those who suffocated on the first floor I thought they were more lucky."

Thirty-five people were injured, said Sergei Petrov, a regional emergency official. Acting Krasnodar Gov. Murat Akhedzhak said 30 people were hospitalized.

Officials said a fire alarm system that had not been fully installed signaled three times, but a watchman ignored the first two alarms and reported the fire only after he saw flames.

In addition, nursing home staff were absent from their posts, slowing efforts to find keys and open an emergency exit, officials said. The officials also said the nurse and three orderlies on duty weren't enough to quickly evacuate the building.

State TV showed Putin and his Cabinet standing for a minute of silence before sitting down to discuss Russian arms sales. Putin ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the Cabinet to conduct thorough investigations and Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said he would take personal control over the probes.

Russia's economy has surged in recent years, fed mainly by high world prices for oil and other natural resources that have stuffed government coffers and trickled down to bring a sense of prosperity among average people. The growth has contributed to Putin's wide popularity despite problems like persistent corruption, a slump in population and poor state services.

The country has suffered a number of deadly blazes at schools, dormitories, hospitals and other state facilities that have revealed rampant violations of fire safety rules and official negligence. A fire at a Moscow drug treatment facility in December killed 45 women trapped by gates and barred windows.

Russia records nearly 18,000 fire deaths a year, several times the per capita rate in the United States and other Western countries.

Tatyana Naboka, 20, who lives across the street from the nursing home in Kamyshevatskaya, said she was appalled that the village of 5,000 people doesn't have a fire station or an ambulance.

"If there were a fire in a private house, there wouldn't be any help from the authorities," she said.

Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy to southern Russia, came to visit the wreckage of the nursing home, but residents gathered nearby showered him with angry shouts.

"Authorities forgot about us! We have neither fire service nor ambulance! There were some war veterans among the dead! It's horrible that people burn alive in peace time!" they yelled.

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