Thirty-eight people, mostly psychiatric patients, were killed yesterday in a fire that ravaged a hospital in the Moscow region, suffocating the victims as they slept behind barred windows.
The deadly blaze raised new questions about security standards at Russia’s medical institutions, in particular psychiatric hospitals, after a string of fires in past years.
The fire broke out on the roof and spread rapidly throughout the hospital wing in the small town of Ramensky, about 40km outside Moscow, the Russian Ministry of Health said.
Officials said that the residents of the hospital wing suffocated to death while they slept as the fire spread rapidly through the wooden building, although three managed to escape in the early stages of the blaze.
“There were 41 people in the hospital. We now know for sure that three are alive, that is a nurse and two patients,” regional health minister Nina Suslonova told the Interfax news agency.
The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations in a statement listed those missing as two female members of staff and 36 patients. Several patients were in their 70s.
However, in conflicting reports, acting regional governor Andrei Vorobyov told Rossiya 24 TV from the scene that 36 were missing.
Thirteen bodies have been found so far, Russian television reported, as firefighters searched through the rubble after more than 100 battled to extinguish the blaze.
The institution’s chief doctor, who was not named by Russian media, described the patients as a “very tough group of people — psychiatric patients with chronic illnesses and frequent attacks,” who suffered from alcohol and drug addiction.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement that it had opened a criminal probe into failure to observe fire security regulations, causing multiple deaths.
The main possible causes were careless handling of fire or a short circuit in the electric wiring, a spokeswoman for the regional investigative committee, Irina Gumennaya, told Rossiya 24.
Two patients and one member of medical staff escaped the fire. The chief doctor was quoted as saying that the one-story building was entirely made from wood and dated from 1952.
Most of the patients apparently died in their sleep from inhaling fumes, but they would have been unable to escape from the fire that raged through the building with bars on the windows.
“There were bars on all the windows of the hospital. Most of those killed died in their beds and it appears that they were not even able to save themselves,” a security source told Interfax.
Acting regional governor Vorobyov told Rossiya 24 that “the investigation must decide whether the bars were the reason or not” for the tragedy.
Russian media complained that the emergency services had been slow to react, with the fire brigade taking an hour to get there.
“This is a really long time,” Vorobyov said.
Firefighters struggled to reach the clinic because a road crossing over the nearby canal was closed, a spokesman for the emergency situations ministry told Interfax.
The patients slept soundly as they had taken medication in the evening, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported, citing a spokesman for the rescue operation.
The smoke alarms did activate in the hospital and woke a nurse, who managed to save two patients, the rescue operation spokesman said.
“When the nurse came out into the corridor, the fire was burning and the flames were spreading quickly. She managed to bring out only two patients: a woman and a young man,” the spokesman said.
The Moscow region announced a day of mourning to be held today.
The fire was the latest tragedy to hit a medical institution in Russia, which still suffers from outdated Soviet-era infrastructure and lax security procedures.
In 2009, 23 people died in a fire in the wooden building of an old people’s home in Komi republic in northern Russia, while in 2007, 63 died in a fire at an old people’s home in the southern Krasnodar region.
In December 2006, a fire in a Moscow drug rehabilitation clinic killed 45 women. Many of the victims were trapped by metal bars on the windows that staff could not open and an emergency exit was boarded up, officials said.