Fire at Russian nursing home takes at least 31 lives

A fire engulfed a nursing home in Russia, trapping patients in fast-moving flames and choking smoke. At least 31 people were killed.

Horrific fires at state-run facilities have underscored the deadly toll claimed by the negligence, mismanagement, corruption and crumbling infrastructure that persist despite an oil-fueled upswing in Russia's fortunes under President Vladimir Putin. Nearly 18,000 people are killed in fires each year, several times the per capita rate in the United States and other Western countries.

The blaze broke out early Sunday afternoon in the two-story home for the elderly and invalids in the Tula region, south of Moscow. It spread quickly through the 55-year-old brick building whose wooden interior walls burned fast, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said.

More than 250 people escaped or were evacuated, officials said. Some jumped from windows, and a nurse described frantic efforts to save bedridden patients - though emergency officials blamed personnel for the high death toll.

"When the room filled with smoke - black carbon monoxide fumes - I knew I wouldn't have time to ties sheets together and decided to just jump out the window," survivor Mikhail Zhuravlyov, 45, told NTV television, lying in a hospital bed with a cast on his leg. "I jumped, and lost consciousness for a while."

The blaze was apparently caused by a short circuit, officials said. Survivors said a ceiling lamp on the second floor started smoking and fell to the floor, which caught fire, the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Russia's top fire safety official, Yuri Nenashev, as saying.

Firefighters were only alerted half an hour after the fire broke out, and arrived five minutes later to find that the blaze had already spread over 1,000 square meters (10,000 square feet), Beltsov said. Employees "did not organize the effective evacuation" of residents, he said.

Nenashev also faulted personnel for beginning evacuation efforts on the first floor rather than the second floor, where the fire started, RIA-Novosti reported.

Valentina Chernikova, a nurse, said employees did their best to evacuate patients, many of whom were bedridden, she said.

"They had to be carried out on stretchers, on gurneys, pushed through windows. I think we did this very quickly," Chernikova said on state-run Vesti-24 television. She said employees had tossed mattresses and blankets in the snow outside and hurriedly placed the patients on them.

Television footage showed flames leaping behind a second story window after dark - hours after the fire erupted, and officials said Monday that embers were still burning occasionally. Bodies were found overnight and throughout the day, said Beltsov.

The death toll Monday evening was 31, he said.

Twice in the past year fire authorities appealed to courts to order the facility shut down because of "glaring violations" of fire safety rules, Beltsov said. He said the building had no fire alarm and no system that would automatically alert the fire department.

The nursing home in the town of Velye-Nikolskoye, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Moscow, had also been warned to replace its electrical system because it was a fire hazard, Nenashev was quoted as saying.

Prosecutors opened a criminal case on suspicion of fire safety violations resulting in multiple deaths.

Putin made no public comment about the fire, which occurred on the National Unity Day holiday. His prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, ordered Tula Governor Vyacheslav Dudka and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to ensure that survivors are cared for and the causes are thoroughly examined, Russian news agencies reported.

Dudka called the fire a "major tragedy" and said "serious conclusions" would be drawn from the investigation, suggesting firings and prosecutions were imminent. He also said buildings of the same design as the nursing home would be inspected throughout the region.

The remarks echoed belated promises of action that have followed similar fires over the past year.

In March, a fire in a nursing home in southern Russia killed 63 people. A nearby fire station had been shut, and it took firefighters almost an hour to get to the site from a larger town after a night watchman ignored two fire alarms before reporting the blaze, authorities said.

In December, locked gates and barred windows prevented victims from escaping a blaze that killed 46 women at a drug treatment center. Inspectors had recommended its temporary closure because of safety violations.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova