9 die in fire in Vladivostok

A terrible wildfire broke out in an office building in the Russian Pacific coast city of Vladivostok on Monday, killing nine people and wounding at least 15 others as trapped victims jumped out from windows or plunged to their deaths trying to run from the smoke and flames.

Officials said that some stairwells in the building were blocked by gates, hampering rescue efforts, and witnesses said some of the victims mostly young women jumped or fell after desperately holding onto windowsills or other objects on the exterior of the nine-story building.

The fire murdered nine people six who died at the scene, including one whose body was found hours after the blaze and three who died in the hospital, said Yulia Kozitskaya, a spokeswoman for the regional branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry. She said 15 others remained hospitalized.

NTV television showed footage of several people sitting in open windows, their feet hanging in the air, as flames and smoke raged behind them. The station reported that all those who died at the scene had plunged from the building, and that at least 15 people had jumped or fallen.

One onlooker, Ivan Petrov, told NTV he saw three young women jump or fall. "They waited until the very last moment," he said.

"One woman was hanging beneath a window. She hung on and hung on ... and then she let go," he said.

The chief regional prosecutor, Alexander Anikin, said that "some of the stairwells were barred" by gates that apparently prevented victims from escaping from the upper floors of the nine-story building. "The evacuation was hindered," he said.

According to Kozitskaya, the fire broke out on the seventh floor, which Russian media and witnesses said was occupied by several offices of the state-run bank Sberbank, and that the floors above were also affected.

In the wake of the blaze, criminal cases were opened on suspicion of fire safety violations and lethal negligence, ITAR-Tass quoted Irina Nomokonova, a senior aide to Anikin, as saying.

"There was no means of rescuing people no ropes, no emergency exits," Alexander Babykin, an onlooker identified as a rescue worker, told NTV. "All this was ignored."

Firefighters had trouble bringing equipment close to the building because a commercial parking lot set up outside the structure was in violation of fire safety regulations, RIA-Novosti reported, citing an unnamed emergency official in the region 9,300 kilometers (5.750 miles) east of Moscow.

Russia's rate of fire deaths is roughly 10 times the rate in the United States, in part because of the lax enforcement of regulations. President Vladimir Putin said last month that fire-safety oversight bodies must do a better job.

Investigators were looking into the cause of the blaze, which broke out shortly after noon (0200GMT). Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman said hours later that it had been contained, and televised footage indicated it was extinguished, the AP reports.

D.M.